GUATEMALA BLOG SERIES #7: Some land governance institutions in Guatemala and their performance

March 2019, by Jur Schuurman


It will be no surprise to the readers of this blog that the institutional environment for land governance in Guatemala has its shortcomings. In the previous instalment I wrote about a massive land fraud in the Petén department, perpetrated with active participation of staff of FONTIERRA, the fund that was created in 1997 in order to address land tenure inequality and to facilitate the access of landless labourers and small farmers to (more) land. The involvement of its personnel in illegal activities makes one less than optimistic about FONTIERRAS’ general performance, and indeed, the available literature confirms as much. In a comprehensive evaluation of rural land governance after the peace agreements of 1996,[1] the authors conclude that the results have been disappointing: FONTIERRAS’ slow bureaucracy, fundamental flaws in its setup and widespread corruption have meant that the main beneficiaries of the ‘market-assisted land reform’ that the Fund was supposed to enable were the big landowners. They could take advantage of the high demand for land by smallholders, and sold the low-quality portions of their properties, frequently overvaluing them in the process, to FONTIERRA. The ultimate consequence is the high degree of indebtedness of the buyers, who cannot produce enough to repay the loan they got from the Fund. 

In addition to brokering between buyers and sellers, and partly due to the meagre general results obtained (between 1997 and 2005, not more than 4.3% of Guatemala’s total agricultural area was reallocated[2]), in 2004 FONTIERRAS started to branch out to the facilitation of land rental agreements. In purely quantitative terms, the results were more encouraging than those of the buyer-seller mediation: compared to the nearly 20,000 families that, between 1997 and 2012, could buy land with the help of FONTIERRAS, from 2004 to 2010 more than 230,000 families benefited from the rental programme.[3] However, according to Gauster and Isakson (see footnote 2) it is doubtful whether the programme will help redress the structural inequalities in Guatemala’s socio-economic rural landscape. There is no full transfer of land rights, only a temporary agreement, meaning that ‘large landlords maintain their position of power’. Also, tenants will be less inclined to realise improvements and investments since the land is not theirs; and the area per beneficiary family is much smaller than with the land purchase programme: 0.77 hectare vs 9 hectare.


Upper billboard: ‘NOT FOR SALE. This property has owners. Don’t let them rip you off’. Lower billboard: ‘The indigenous authorities and the members of the community council of El Chajbal village (Quiché department – JS) declare that this land belongs to Mr José Pú Tiú’. Photo credit: Gabriela Quiroga


There are other institutions working, directly or indirectly, on issues related to land governance. The Cadastre is an important one, and it is not getting positive reviews either. In the Land Government Assessment (LGAF) performed under the auspices of the World Bank in 2015,[4] it is concluded that tenure security in Guatemala is hampered by the lack of transparency of property information. The report emphasizes the need for complete and updated cadastral information, and rightly so: as of May 2018, according to a newspaper report, the national Cadastre in Guatemala is complete for no more than eight municipalities, out of 340[5]. (Hence the need for billboards like the ones on the above photograph.) It is all the more striking that the LGAF report makes no mention of a $ 50M project (2006-2015) funded by the very same World Bank and aiming at, among others, cadastral regularisation. According to a report by the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group,[6] the project’s results were mixed: although some targets were achieved, it was precisely the culmination of the cadastral process, i.e. the registration of parcels in the Public Registry, that fell considerably short of the objectives, with only 17% of the parcels being registered. Also, the project’s development outcome risk was assessed as ‘high’ because of the doubtful sustainability of the changes that were brought about, in particular with regard to the position and funding of the Cadastre.

The latter is indicative of the quality of the general institutional and political environment, also mentioned in the LGAF report. Things simply do not get done. The most dramatic example is the never-ending discussion of Law #4084, that is supposed to create the infrastructure needed for carrying out the Integral Rural Development Policy, elaborated in a multi-stakeholder process led by the presidency.  Despite positive advice from the congressional agricultural committee, in 2009 and again in 2016, this law, considered vital for equitable land tenure and poverty eradication, has still not been approved by Congress, nor is it likely to be in the near future. One could write an entire Ph.D. thesis on the causes of this delay, but it saves time to say that the rural oligarchy will simply have none of this law, and they control the parliament. Perhaps things change after the general elections in June, but don’t read my lips.



[1] CEIDEPAZ (2009): Problemática agraria en Guatemala: evaluación alternativa a 12 años de la firma de los acuerdos de paz.

[2] Gauster, Susana and S Ryan Isakson (2007) Eliminating market distortions, perpetuating rural inequality: an evaluation of market-assisted land reform in Guatemala, Third World Quarterly, 28:8, 1519 – 1536

[3] Juan Carlos Us Pinula (2013): Acceso versus acaparamiento de tierras: una breve aproximación a la problemática en Guatemala. IDEAR/CONGCOOP, Guatemala (CONGCOOP is one of Guatemala’s ILC members, and IDEAR is its research division)

[4] Isua Edrei Miranda López: Mejora de la gobernanza de la tierra en Guatemala. LGAF report on Guatemala, February, 2015. See:

[5] Alejandro Balsells: La certeza sobre la tierra. Prensa Libre, Guatemala, 23 May 2018

[6] IEG: Implementation Completion Report (ICR) Review. GT (APL2) LAND ADMINISTRATION (P087106). World Bank, March 2017



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