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Guatemala Blog Series

The author

My name is Jur Schuurman and for the past year I have been blogging about land governance in Guatemala, where I lived from September 2017 till May 2019 (I am now based in Costa Rica). I have been involved with LANDac for several years now, first as the representative of one of the partners, i.e. 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.

I have tried to tell 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 and last but not least, the way land governance is affected by the context of what is in fact a failed (or failing) state. Concrete cases illustrate these general concepts.

I hope you enjoy reading the instalments! If you do (and if you don’t!), you can contact me at or write to

Update Guatemala Blog Series – Land governance in Guatemala: a new setback

14 September 2020

In April 2019, I published a story on a land conflict in San José Sinaché, a small town in Guatemala (see, as an example of the reality behind the figures in the database of the Secretaría de Asuntos Agrarios (the Department for Agrarian Affairs – SAA). A year later, Guatemalan president Alberto Giammattei decided to close down the Department, arguing that the money saved by this decision would be better spent matching a project by the World Food Program (WFP) aiming at providing 200,000 infants (between 6 and 24 months of age) with food supplements.

While it is undeniable that child malnutrition in Guatemala is a drama of its own, with as many as 70% of all children in the Western Highlands being affected, it is highly questionable whether the elimination of the SAA is the right way to liberate funds for the WFP project. The Department is one of three institutions that were created as a corollary of the Peace Agreements of 1996, together with the Register of Cadastral Information and FONTIERRAS (see also instalment # 7 of the LANDac blog on land governance in Guatemala). All three institutions relate to land tenure, and that is no coincidence: land concentration and tenure insecurity are the root of many problems in Guatemala, including the 1960-1996 civil war. Abolishing the SAA, i.e. the institution that made a good effort at monitoring and solving land conflicts, is exactly what the country does not need – in addition to this decision being in flagrant non-compliance with the Peace Agreements: it is the state of Guatemala that is committed to them, not any specific government that happens to be in power.

But that does not mean that we are witnessing an error of judgment on the government’s side. On the contrary: the SAA’s success and efficacy were probably the very reasons for closing it down and integrating it in a presidential Commission on Human Rights, where ‘integrating’ has to be read as ‘watering down’, since the SAA has always been a nail in the coffin of Guatemala’s landed elite. An elite that has all but captured the state, including the president. In short, the decision is one more example of the tenacity with which a small minority holds on to its privileges.

What all of this means for the conflict in San José Sinaché, still far from being settled, is unclear but it does not look good. By the end of 2019, positions on both sides were more inflexible than ever (Prensa Libre, 13 December 2019). The mediating and knowledgeable role of the SAA might turn out to be sorely missed.

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.

Land and land governance: some Guatemalan facts and context

Land tenure in Guatemala is characterised by high inequality. A recent report published by Oxfam International[1] 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?

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[2].

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 latifundia 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[3].

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[4].

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.

[1] Arantxa Guereña: Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America. © Oxfam International, November 2016
[2] Marta Elena Casaús Arzú: Guatemala: Linaje y Racismo. F&G editores, Guatemala, 2018 (5th edition, originally published in 1992)
[3] José Luis Vega Carballo: Hacia una interpretación del desarrollo costarricense: ensayo sociológico. Editorial Porvenir, San José, 1983
[4] See footnote 1

Land conflicts, violence and… a way forward?

Juana Raymundo (25) of CODECA, tortured and murdered on 27 July

A few weeks ago, an international fact-finding mission led by the International Land Coalition (ILC) visited Guatemala. The reason: from January to July 2018, 18 leaders and members of Guatemalan movements defending human rights were killed – without any suspects being rounded up, not even the usual ones. 13 of these men and women were active in defending land and territorial rights, protesting against arbitrary evictions and negative spillovers because of hydroelectric projects and the like. Several of them were active for ILC member organisations in Guatemala, of which there are four. Particularly CODECA (Committee for Peasant Development) and CCDA (Farmers’ Committee for the Altiplano) were hit hard by the killings.

Guatemala is a violent country: the homicide rate is lower than in the other two Northern Triangle countries (Honduras and El Salvador)[1], but still, many issues are ‘solved’ with arms, and land conflicts (of which there are some 1,450 to be resolved[2]) are no exception. To discuss the causes for this centuries-old propensity to use force would be beyond the scope of this blog; suffice it to say that the arrival of the Spaniards in 1524 unleashed an arbitrary and intimidatory style of land appropriation, mainly aimed at indigenous people and persisting to this day.

The ILC mission, whose main goal was, besides visiting affected communities and organisations, to have talks with Guatemalan authorities at different levels on how to end this wave of violence, concluded that it takes a leap of faith to expect much of those same authorities. The mission had every reason to believe that they don’t have the capacity nor political will to deal with this problem: “Instead of upholding the human rights of individuals and communities, the legal and judicial systems are being used to advance the interests of powerful state and non-state groups against the interests of local communities”[3]. And indeed, in general most observers agree that the government, parliament included, is an instrument of the elites in Guatemala, and by no means a body that acts accountably and on a mandate by the voters. That is not how the political system works in Guatemala. A telling quote from a newspaper article in the aftermath of the mission illustrates this. In reaction to demands by forty civil society organisations in Guatemala that the killings be investigated, the Attorney General responded that ‘we would have to look into this’.[4] Somehow that does not sound right.

All in all, a bleak picture emerges, with one of its salient aspects being the almost total absence of policy dialogue on land in Guatemala: not in general, nor in specific cases. The right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) by communities, as advocated in the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT), is paid lip-service in the government’s Agrarian Policy (2014), but in fact does not exist. It is therefore only timely that, also in August, a seminar was organised in Guatemala City with the explicit ambition to find ways to make progress in the application of the VGGT to land governance in the country.[5] The results are not yet known but hopefully they will be available in about a month.  To be continued…

[1] InSight Crime: 2017 homicide rates in Latin American and the Caribbean (, retrieved 19 August 2018)
[2] FAO-Guatemala: Nota técnica para el Seminario ‘Gobernanza de la Tenencia de la Tierra y Perspectivas Productivas para Guatemala’. 17 July, 2018.
[3] ILC/Front Line Defenders/Civicus: Press release – International Mission in Guatemala on violations to defenders of land and the environment (10 August 2018). (, retrieved 19 August 2018)
[4] Piden agilizar acciones. Prensa Libre, 20 August 2018. See
[5] FAO-Guatemala: Guatemala busca implementar eficientemente la Gobernanza de la Tenencia de la Tierra para el desarrollo (, retrieved 19 August 2018)

(The Absence of) Urban Land Governance in Guatemala

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: Tupes 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 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

Urban land governance in Guatemala: two elephants and many mosquitos in the room

Last month’s instalment, 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.

The matrix and the mosquitos: two approaches to urban planning Source: presentation by Pedro Ortiz, ENADE 2018, Guatemala City, 11 October 2018

Another approach is needed, according to Ortiz. Picture the whole in a ‘metro matrix map’ (see the 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.

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 the 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

Land and the judiciary – an uncertain future

Last December I wrote that Guatemala “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 (…). But that is another story.” It is indeed, and now is the time to tell it.

After three years of preparation, this past 7 January the ‘Génesis’ trial started in a Guatemalan court[1], against a network accused of fraudulent land operations in the Petén department, in the North of the country. By means of falsified deeds, threats and outright violence, 28 smallholder farmers were forced to sell or abandon their land to members of the Mendoza clan, that operated on behalf of a Guatemalan investor with two major forestation companies for teak wood production. This businessman subsequently bought the land from the Mendoza’s. He is currently on the run from justice, being wanted by Interpol for, among other charges, investment fraud.

It would be beyond the scope of this blog to analyse in detail the nature of the fraud. Besides, the ramifications are so many that one could easily write a book about this. Let’s stick to land governance. First of all, it is important to note that these acts of intimidation concerning peasant land are normal practice in Guatemala. That this case is so well-known in Guatemala is partly due to the contribution of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to the investigation and evidence-gathering. The CICIG, created in 2007 by agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan state, was set up to help strengthen the legal system in the country, and to research and denounce cases of corruption and impunity.[2]  One of CICIG’s work areas is land grabbing, and Génesis is a high-profile example in this line of work.

But what I found really disturbing is that it turned out that employees and notaries of FONTIERRA were involved in producing forged property deeds ‘proving’ that the farmers (the ones who were not intimidated) had sold their land – which they hadn’t. It is bad enough that any lawyer would lend him- or herself to that kind of manoeuvres, but their FONTIERRA background is the cherry on the cake. As an outcome of the 1996 Peace Agreements, and with all involved parties acknowledging that land problems are among the most important ones in Guatemala, FONTIERRA was created in 1997 as a multi-stakeholder institute with the mission to address land tenure inequality and to facilitate, with different tools for market-assisted land reform, access of landless labourers and small farmers to (more) land. What’s more, the 28 farms in question were all acquired by smallholders through the FONTIERRA programme. It is, therefore, particularly ironic that staff of precisely this institute, one of the important institutions in Guatemala’s land governance system, is involved in a fraudulent scheme to take these people’s land away, committing forgery with purchase deeds.

The accused have now been brought to trial, but how effective that will be remains to be seen – and that has to do with the crisis Guatemala is going through. Thanks to the work of CICIG, in the past ten years and particularly under its present director, the Colombian lawyer Iván Velásquez, many suspects of corruption, embezzlement, money-laundering and illegal financing of political campaigns, have been brought to justice. Also, the judiciary in the country has been considerably strengthened and made more independent of both the executive and the legislature. All of this is a thorn in the side of Guatemala’s elite, which is why in recent weeks President Jimmy Morales has redoubled his efforts to end the work of CICIG – that, in public surveys, has an approval rate of about 70%, in stark contrast to Morales’ 15%. In September 2018 he already had notified the UN that Guatemala would unilaterally end the cooperation agreement a year later. In passing, he did not allow Velásquez (who was abroad the time) to re-enter the country. And as if this was not enough, on the very day the Génesis trial started, the government notified the UN of the immediate end of the cooperation (not even waiting until September) and revoked the courtesy visa of CICIG’s foreign staff working in Guatemala.

A coincidence, these two events on 7 January? No doubt. But what isn’t, is that both the legislature and the executive are now dismantling at high speed and by subtle and not-so-subtle manoeuvres, the independence of the judiciary, setting the clock back 12 years. It does not look good for those holding the short end of the stick, including the legitimate owners of those 28 farms.

PS As a part of the institutional setting on land governance, FONTIERRAS and other actors are worth a closer look, and I will write about this some next time. For the moment, let me just say that FONTIERRA’s performance leaves to be desired: several evaluations[3] point to the absence of results in terms of the amount of land transferred and/or purchase credits granted to smallholders.

[1] Prensa Libre: MP señala cómo la familia Mendoza despojó de tierras a campesinos del Petén. Guatemala, 7 January 2019.  
[2] For the past years, Guatemala’s score on the Perception of Corruption Index oscillates around 30 (on a scale from 1 to 100, where 100 is absence of corruption). In 2017 the country ranked 143rd (out of 180) on the Index (
[3] See, for instance: Gauster, Susana and Isakson, S Ryan (2007) Eliminating market distortions, perpetuating rural inequality: an evaluation of market-assisted land reform in Guatemala, Third World Quarterly, 28:8, 1519 – 1536; ILC National Engagement Strategy in Guatemala (2016): Monitoreo Al Presupuesto Público del Ministerio De Agricultura, Ganadería Y Alimentación y El Fondo De Tierras –Fontierras- en 2015, con Énfasis Al Presupuesto Dirigido A Las Mujeres.

Some land governance institutions in Guatemala and their performance

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’.

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.

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

(no) land governance and deforestation in Guatemala

Sometimes, an image says more than any numbers. Who needs tables and graphs on the pace of deforestation the Petén department in Northern Guatemala? –  when it is clear from the two satellite pictures below how fast this is happening and what the differences are with its neighbouring country on the East, i.e. Belize.

Source: About the Dispute. Government of Belize (2018):

In the right half of the illustration, one does not even need to draw the border line (that is not very well visible anyway) to see where Guatemala ends and Belize begins, or vice versa. The photographs are a perfect visualisation of the failure and (near-) absence of land governance mechanisms in Guatemala (see instalment #7 of this blog), with uncontrolled tree loss as a result. What you see above is caused by two factors: the demand for (fire-)wood in Guatemala, and changes in land use in Petén, i.e. the replacement of trees by agriculture and cattle breeding. Obviously, both mechanisms reinforce each other.

It is a familiar image along the roads in rural Guatemala: people carrying a heavy bundle of wood on their shoulders. Either they will sell it to their fellow-villagers, or they will use it for their own household needs; many people do not have access to any other fuel for their cooking and heating.  This phenomenon accounts for the lion’s share of timber demand in Guatemala, and in the absence of any controls, timber is transported from the sparsely populated North to the cities in the South massively and illegally: it is estimated that only 2,5% of all timber extraction in Guatemala is formally authorised.[1]

But trees are also cut or burned in order to prepare the land for other activities. Two separate processes occur. One is spontaneous agricultural colonisation: smallholders with no or little access to land turn to the primeval forests in Petén, slash and burn a few hectares and start to work the land. The other process entails large portions of forest being turned into pastureland for extensive cattle breeding, often as a cover for clandestine drug trafficking operations: the Petén is comparatively flat and therefore an ideal place for airstrips that accommodate small planes. It is estimated that in the Laguna del Tigre national park alone, in 2017 there were some 65 illegal airstrips.[2] One can only guess at the figure for Petén as a whole. The authorities are ill-equipped to do much about it, or indifferent.

So much for the bad news. On a brighter note, and speaking of parks, most of Petén is a sort of protected area: the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Within this reserve, the sections that are under a regime of community forestry are doing best, as this 2018 map by the Rainforest Alliance shows. Thanks to concessions for sustainable marketing of timber and non-timber products, deforestation has been strongly reduced and incomes of community members have increased.[3] The work of the regional community forestry association ACOFOP, that represents 24 local organizations of agroforestry producers and sustainable management of natural resources,  was key in the consolidation of this effort, offering an alternative to the ‘fortress conservationist[4]’ set-up of the MBR.

Another promising experience is the PINPEP program of the National Forestry Institute (INAB), with incentives for farmers to use part of their land for forestry, for both conservation and production purposes. Over the past 12 years, about 127,000 hectares have been covered by this program, with 35,000 beneficiary families.[5] It is of particular interest to note that the most important incentive is security of tenure for the participating producers: with proof of participation in PINPEP, a producer can get a land title from his or her local government.

So, despite all the problems and setbacks that I have signalled in both this instalment and previous ones, there are glimmers of hope for land governance and tenure security in Guatemala. And it is on this positive note that I say goodbye: a few weeks ago, I have left the country and my blog ends here.  However, and with some pride, I can refer you to another recent text of mine on land governance in Guatemala. It won the third prize in the Land Portal’s Data Stories Contest and you can read it here.

[1] O. Monterroso, G. López y J. Gálvez (2012): Análisis sistémico de la deforestación en Guatemala y propuesta de políticas para revertirla. Guatemala, Universidad Rafael Landívar, serie técnica No. 38.
[2] S. Escalón: A new secret runway found in Laguna del Tigre National Park in Guatemala. Mongabay, 18 May 2017 (
[3] Community: The Secret to Stopping Deforestation in Guatemala. Rainforest Alliance, August 2018 (
[4] = without any human presence.

Picture top of page: Tikal National Park at sunrise. Tikal, Guatemala. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID (2017). No changes made.