GUATEMALA BLOG SERIES #5: Urban land governance in Guatemala: two elephants and many mosquitos in the room

December 2018, by Jur Schuurman


Last month’s blog post, on the National Development Meeting (ENADE) housing conference, ended with the question how to deal with Guatemala City’s chaotic growth, housing shortages and traffic congestion. Enter keynote speaker Pedro Ortiz from Spain, known for his advisory role in the Habitat III process. He confronted the audience with the central question: what does Guatemala (metropolis AND nation) aspire to be? What is the development vision? Where do you want to stand in 2050? Without answers to those questions, spatial interventions will inevitably follow the ‘mosquito strategy’: biting where one can, i.e. building a few houses (or roads, or…) here and there without thinking about their connection with, and location relative to, other urban functions.



Another approach is needed, according to Ortiz. Picture the whole in a ‘metro matrix map’ (see figure), so that you can make informed planning choices. One of the conditions to make this possible is a metropolitan administrative authority. But in Guatemala, the municipalities are the only administrative level in the metropolitan region. They would have to articulate their respective policies, which is quite a challenge, since there is little institutional strength regarding urban development[1]. Ironically enough, this statement was made in the Urban Agenda for Guatemala, written under the responsibility of the national Commissioner for Urban Development. He was appointed as part of Guatemala’s engagements in the framework of Habitat III[2], and resigned in August, 2017, over strong disagreement with decisions made by president Jimmy Morales. To date, no successor has been appointed.

The matrix and the mosquitos: two approaches to urban planning

But problems run deeper than an absence of planning techniques and a need for administrative (re)organisation and robust institutions. ‘Cambray II’ (see Blog #4) is symptomatic of the indifference of the authorities, at all levels, with regard to the well-being of their disadvantaged citizens. (The aftermath of the Fuego volcano eruption in June 2018 was another case in point[3].) There are even those who say that the (qualitative and quantitative) housing shortage is not so much a consequence of indifference as of deliberate negligence: according to people at HODE (Home and Development), an organisation that develops housing projects for the poor, people who don’t have decent housing don’t have the time nor the energy to advocate for real political change, which is exactly what those in power want to avoid.



Whether indifference or negligence, it finds clear expression in the small size of the public sector. According to Ortiz and other speakers, the low level of taxation is the big elephant in the Guatemalan policy room. For a public sector to be effective, the tax revenue has to amount to somewhere between 30 and 45% of GDP. In Guatemala it is a mere 10% (some of which, to make matters worse, does not end up where it should). In addition, the Guatemalan tax system is quite regressive[4], since most of that 10% is financed by VAT, and more often than not used for projects to embellish the city near where the rich live, thus increasing their properties’ value, and not for thoughtful upgrading of low-income housing and ambitious social housing plans. A progressive fiscal system is out of the question because the powers that be do not really care about paying for social policies.




That brings us to the second elephant in the room. What about the visions of slum and shantytown dwellers and their organisations? Were they included in the ENADE event or was it yet another example of talking about people but not with them? Regrettably, it was. Guatemala has its share of active slum dwellers’ organisations (for instance, FODHAP, and aforementioned HODE), but it was as if they did not exist. One would like to think that the ENADE organisers are not merely interested in making themselves visible for profitable building contracts, but FODHAP clearly does think otherwise, according to their press statement: “With ENADE 2018, the national elites and the capital conglomerates that represent them, once again promote investments in housing construction meant only for those that can afford it, reinforcing the idea of housing as merchandise and not as a right, and leaving settlers in the cold”.[5] And not only housing, but also land : in a recent FODHAP-led audit social audit on housing subsidies the authors noted that in Guatemala, (urban) land has no social function: it is an object of widespread speculation, and hence out of reach for both low-income sectors and the ill-funded public institutions that have housing in their portfolio. The mafias dominate the land market. [6]

Powerful language and, maybe, not the best way to get to be invited as a speaker at mainstream events. It is yet another symptom of the deep divisions in Guatemalan society, that show little signs of diminishing – on the contrary. The country is going through a political and constitutional crisis that has everything to do with the struggle of certain sectors to retain their privileges and avoiding uncomfortable questions about them, and the anger of other sectors about that. But that is another story.


[1] Instituto de Fomento Municipal: Agenda Urbana GT. Guatemala, 2016. See:


[3] El País: Un volcán de indiferencia. 10 October, 2018.

[4] H.A. Lemus Juárez: El Sistema Tributario guatemalteco ante la resistencia a la Acción Fiscalizadora. PhD. Tesis, Universidad Galileo (Guatemala), 2014.

[5] FODHAP: Comunicado de prensa, 10 October 2018.

[6] Federación de Organizaciones para el Desarrollo del Hábitat Popular (FODHAP): Auditoría Social a la Aplicación de Subsidios del Fondo para la Vivienda (FOPAVI). Guatemala, November 2017


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