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How Fernando Galeana Rodriguez, Ph.D. ’21 advocates for indigenous communities in Honduras

By Fernando Galeana Rodriguez Ph.D. '21
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Indigenous communities in the tropical lowlands of Latin America have for generations faced insecure claims on their lands. In recent years, efforts to formally recognize land rights have merged with environmental policies to protect forests and mitigate climate change. As part of his Ph.D. work in the Department of Global Development, Fernando Galeana Rodriguez, Ph.D. ’21 combined his passions for environmental justice and indigenous land rights to study and support the Miskitu population of Honduras.

We sat down with Fernando to learn more about his research, his past work in international development, and his next chapter as an assistant professor of sociology and integrative conservation at William & Mary.

What are the big challenges or issues that your research confronts?

It is estimated that as many as 1.5 billion people globally experience insecure land and property rights. Improving the land-tenure security of poor and historically marginalized populations is one of the biggest challenges in development policy. Yet, as my research in Latin America shows, providing land titles does not automatically translate into secure property rights. In fact, land titling programs can put communities at risk by facilitating the commodification of land and natural resources.

My goal as a social scientist is to raise awareness about indigenous land rights while continuing to advocate for more robust property systems to protect community land and resources.

What was your research focus in the Ph.D. program?

During my time at Cornell, my research dwelled on cultural recognition, agrarian transformations and social mobilization. I studied the aftermath of a land titling initiative in Honduras through which the Miskitu people secured property rights over their homelands in the region of Moskitia. The titling process required that the Miskitu divided their land into twelve territorial councils to comply with the requirements imposed by the Honduran government. Each territorial council received an inter-communal property title that recognized their ancestral ownership over the land and natural resources. The twelve titles covered approximately 12% of the country’s surface, which indicated the significance of this territorial recognition.

The titling of collective land rights culminated three decades of social mobilization by Miskitu activists. Still, questions remained about whether the titles could protect their lands from encroachment by colonists and external interests. The inter-communal property titles had also produced an institutional framework that represented a new way for the Miskitu people to relate to the government, NGOs, and themselves. My research focused on understanding the cultural transformation unleashed by the inter-communal titles in the context of an advancing agrarian frontier.

What inspired you to work with indigenous land rights?

My interest in the territorial struggles in the Honduran Moskitia emerged from my participation in a World Bank-funded project that supported the titling of the first territorial council in 2012. In my role as a World Bank consultant, I traveled to the region to supervise the consultation with Miskitu communities and led a study tour of government officials and indigenous leaders to Colombia and Nicaragua to learn from similar experiences. The geography of the region and the complexity of the case fascinated me. I felt both curious and responsible for finding out if the land titles could improve tenure security for the communities. Through my research, I found that tenure security continued to be undermined by the government’s lack of commitment to evict illegal occupants and clarify the jurisdictional competencies of the territorial councils and local governments. One of the lessons learned is that conflict resolution mechanisms need to be a part of the institutional framework.

Photos from the field

You’ve accepted a tenure-track position at William and Mary as a professor of sociology and integrative conservation. What excites you about that position?

I am thrilled to begin this new chapter of my career at William and Mary. The Institute of Integrative Conservation (IIC) was recently established to address emerging conservation challenges through solutions that account for both biodiversity protection and human wellbeing. Fulfilling this mission will involve teaching the next generation of conservations, researching interventions that advance sustainability, and creating partnerships with public, private, and nonprofit sectors. I am also excited to join the Department of Sociology, where I will have the opportunity to continue the legacy of Cornell’s commitment to development studies.

My research and teaching interests will focus on advancing an agenda for environmental justice from the lens of political ecology, development studies, and critical agrarian studies.

I plan to continue working on the Honduran Moskitia to follow up the efforts to consolidate collective land rights and resist land grabs. I will start new research on commodity value chains in the region and their potential for contributing to integrative conservation. Securing territorial rights and fostering the community management of marine and coastal resources are crucial actions to counteract rapid degradation. I am also looking forward to getting involved in environmental justice initiatives in the Williamsburg area.

You previously worked for the World Bank and have degrees in Economics and International Development. What drew you to Cornell CALS?

The department’s reputation in the field of critical development studies and the faculty’s leadership in shaping global debates on land grabbing are the main features that drew me to the program. Since I already had professional experience, I was looking for a program that would challenge me to re-examine the land titling programs that I had collaborated with at the World Bank. When I was applying to graduate programs, Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) theme project, Contested Global Landscapes, was taking place. I was impressed by the quality of inter-disciplinary collaboration and the boldness of the initiative. It was then that I knew that the Ph.D. in Development Sociology at Cornell was the right place for me.

What was the most impactful or memorable experience of your time in the Ph.D. program?

I have so many good memories of the program! One of the most enjoyable experiences during the Ph.D. was getting to meet the other graduate students in the program. The department’s atmosphere indeed fosters collegiality. I had the best time socializing and sharing research ideas with my colleagues. I feel incredibly privileged to have been part of Professor Wendy Wolford’s lab, which included some of the brightest and most generous colleagues I have ever had. Under Professor Wolford’s tutelage, the lab became a place for research innovation and collaboration. We all benefitted from sharing our work at different stages of the program. The students ahead of me provided a positive role model when applying to grants, preparing for exams, or submitting articles; I hope that I was able to do the same for those that came after me.

This collaboration made it clear that research is indeed a social activity.

Researcher spotlight

Fernando Galeana Rodriguez, Ph.D. ‘21

  • Assistant professor, College of William and Mary

  • Areas of expertise: Environmental Justice, Sociology of Development, Political Ecology, Critical Agrarian Studies, Indigenous and Native Nations

Fernando Galeana Rodriguez in a canoe on the water

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