July 2018, by Jur Schuurman
Land tenure in Guatemala is characterised by high inequality. A recent report published by Oxfam International listed the Gini coefficients for land distribution in all Latin American countries; the data for Central America show that Guatemala has the highest Gini value, which is to say the most unequal land distribution. How come? And why is it so much lower in Costa Rica?
Gini coefficients for land distribution in Central America © Oxfam International
The explanation is to be found, as with so many social phenomena, in history. Without pretending that pre-Columbian social structures in Central America were egalitarian, it is clear that the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores caused major changes in land tenure patterns, starting with the expropriation of indigenous land. The reach of these changes depended to a large extent on population features. In Guatemala (and Honduras and El Salvador) there was an important indigenous population, available as (forced) labour to the Spaniards in two main forms: as encomenderos (a kind of sharecroppers, who can stay on their portion of usurped land in exchange for giving up a percentage of their harvest to their Spanish hacienda landlord) or, more straightforwardly, as slaves. Both modalities led to extreme inequality, imposed by force.
Costa Rica’s story is different. Partly because of rapid extermination of the indigenous population, native population density was very low, meaning that the Spanish settlers were on their own: there was no cheap labour to rely on, so they had to work the land themselves. This made haciendas (large farms) completely inviable and thus, the land was subdivided in much smaller (and equal) portions that could be exploited by a Spanish settler and his family without the need for additional labour.
To this day, these differences between both countries are visible and explain part of their later development. Almost the entire population of Costa Rica is of Spanish descent, while in Guatemala almost half of it is indigenous. And Costa Rica is certainly more egalitarian than Guatemala, a country virtually split down the middle: ethnically, economically and, last but not least, in terms of land. To end with another set of figures: in Costa Rica, the largest 1% of farms own 34% of the land, compared with 48% of the land in Guatemala.
In itself, the Guatemalan state of affairs already constitutes an important challenge (it has been proven time and again that high inequality hampers development), but it becomes even more of a Herculean task for the government and other stakeholders when we observe the weak institutions dealing with land (governance) in the country, leading to conflict and (tenure) insecurity. We will explore this problem in coming episodes of this blog series.
 Arantxa Guereña: Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America. © Oxfam International, November 2016
 Marta Elena Casaús Arzú: Guatemala: Linaje y Racismo. F&G editores, Guatemala, 2018 (5th edition, originally published in 1992)
 José Luis Vega Carballo: Hacia una interpretación del desarrollo costarricense: ensayo sociológico. Editorial Porvenir, San José, 1983
 See footnote 1.