GUATEMALA BLOG SERIES #4 (The absence of) Urban land governance in Guatemala

October 2018, by Jur Schuurman


Update: International Land Coalition publishes report on mission to Guatemala

A month ago we wrote a blog about the fact-finding mission by the International Land Coalition to inquire into the assassinations of land rights defenders in the first half of 2018. The official report is now available and leaves the reader with a depressing image of impunity and state complicity.

And the killings do not stop. In October, Benedicto Hernández and his son Arnoldo were murdered near Jalapa in south Guatemala, for the simple reason that they and their fellow-farmers campaigned against what they consider the appropriation of their land.  No condemnation by the national authorities, no inquiry, nothing.


Three years ago, on the 1st of October, 2015, the Cambray II precarious settlement in Santa Catarina Pinula, one of the municipalities in the Guatemala City metropolitan region, was destroyed by a landslide after heavy rains, with at least 300 deadly victims[1]. Why?

The simple explanation goes like this: rural-urban migration and the absence of any effective housing policy have led to a great many asentamientos precarios or slums and shantytowns in Guatemala City. Their number has grown from 103 in 1984 to 297 in 2016[2] – without counting other municipalities in the metropolitan region. As is usual, many of these settlements have been (self-) built in marginal areas, near garbage dumps or on steep gully slopes: the places that no real estate developer is interested in. And in a country with an intense rainy season, the risks of building precarious houses on slopes are obvious.


The city in figures: Types of neighbourhoods in Guatemala City, their number and distribution by ‘Zona’ (city district), 2016 (Source: Social Development Unit, Guatemala City Administration)


But those risks are taken anyway. Again: why? The answer has to do with the low quality, or even absence, of urban land governance. Municipal authorities do not protect their citizens, allowing them to build shacks where they should not; in general, there is a lack of vision on spatial planning, with little or no ideas on what urban function should be located where, and why.

Three years after ‘Cambray II’, i.e. this October, a conference on urban housing addressed these and other questions, in the form of the annual National Development Meeting (ENADE) organised by influential business leaders. The venue: a very fancy hotel, with wide-screen presentation technology that would not have been out of place in a rock concert.

The focal question for this year’s ENADE edition: what to do, and how, about the country’s housing shortage? The problem is not just quantitative: according to the organisers, besides an absolute deficit of 300,000 dwellings, there are 1.5 million chambas (shacks) that lack the elementary conditions for a decent living. The issue is especially pressing in Guatemala City, whose rapid growth has it bursting at the seams: it is estimated that by 2030, the population of the metropolitan region will have grown from 5.5 to 9 million. If nothing is done, substandard housing and traffic congestion will be on the rise, a fatal mix for balanced urban development ambitions. How to deal with this? In part 2 of this instalment on urban land governance in Guatemala some ideas will be put forward, the success of which may depend on the acknowledgement of a few elephants in the room. See you in November!


[1] Wikipedia: 2015 Guatemala landslide.

[2] El Periódico (daily newspaper): La capital registra 297 asentamientos precarios. 10 January 2016. See


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