GUATEMALA BLOG SERIES #1 Setting the stage

June 2018

My name is Jur Schuurman and I will be blogging about land governance in Guatemala, where land and land governance are key elements in the debate about the country’s development. Raised in Argentina and with a strong Latin (and Central) American background, I have been involved with LANDac for several years now, first as the representative of one of the partners (Agriterra) and later (2016-2017) more directly as researcher, panel chair in LANDac conferences and (co-)author of documents such as Strengthening land governance for development. Highlights of LANDac 2010-2016.



This is the first blog in a series that tells the story of Guatemalan land issues from many perspectives: land ownership and tenure, urban and rural land use, the (non-) governmental institutional setting, connections to international platforms. I will zoom in on regional and recent developments, conflicts over land, and the role of agricultural organisations.

For comments and questions, contact me at or write to


1. Setting the stage


A month ago, on 27 April 2018, Guatemala was surprised by the sudden passing away of Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen. Arzú was president of Guatemala in the 1990s and was, until his death, mayor of Guatemala City, a position he held for the last 20 years.

Why start a blog on land in Guatemala with the death of a politician? To be sure, Arzú was a very influential and powerful man, one of the last true ‘caudillos’ in the country, but what does this have to do with land governance? Well, I would say a lot – both directly and indirectly.

The  design and implementation of land governance is (also) related to power – more than one would sometimes infer from abundant examples of technical analyses and recommendations on land governance. Much has been written on the need for capacity development, organisational measures, funding… but it is valid to suppose that if there is no political will to address land governance problems, little will change[1]. And there’s the rub: political will depends on power relations. It may sound like a Central American cliché, but it is not: in Guatemala, power is firmly concentrated in some 20-25 families (of mainly Basque and German origin) that, over the past 400 years, have found different ways to become (very) large land and real estate owners, and to keep things that way[2]. Arzú belonged to one of those families and has therefore been part of the longstanding alliance to accumulate wealth (i.e., land and capital).

In addition to this historical context, there is a much more direct link. As mayor of Guatemala City (and second runner-up in the 2005 World Mayor contest), Arzú has been praised for the projects of urban renewal he undertook (which indeed are visible) but also detracted for making choices, within those projects, that not only did little for the integration of the poor in the city’s social and economic life, but also were set up in such a way that the value of the land held by other wealthy families was actually increased – just one of the mechanisms that resulted in increased land tenure inequality and insecurity in the past five centuries.

The above is just an appetizer for a series of monthly contributions in which I would like to discuss the present (and past!) state of land governance in Guatemala, including the power relations without which things would be hard to understand. And needless to say, without forgetting that power is two-sided: it can be challenged by those who do not (yet) have it in order to change things. How strong is the movement for equitable development in Guatemala, and particularly for transparent, efficient and fair land governance?  This other, let’s call it civil society side of the coin, will be another central topic in my blog series.

And all of this, without forgetting the facts: legislation, the institutional setting, facts and figures on land tenure and (foreign) land acquisitions, the nature of land conflicts in the country, the role of academia, etc.

Till next month!


[1] See, for instance, Babette Wehrmann’s  comparison of land governance frameworks in Land Governance: A Review and Analysis of Key International Frameworks (UN-Habitat, 2017)

[2] Marta Elena Casaús Arzú (yes, a relative!): Guatemala: Linaje y Racismo. F&G editores, Guatemala, 2018 (5th edition, originally published in 1992.