CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — Guatemala accounted for about 30.7% of Central America’s GDP in 2020, making it the largest economy in the region. Despite this, Guatemala continues to struggle with inequality and poverty, especially among the country’s rural and indigenous populations. Issues relating to land rights in Guatemala underlie slow progress in fighting inequality and poverty in the country.
What Is the Problem?
Access to land, especially agricultural land, is extremely important. An essential 41.2% of Guatemala’s land is used for agriculture. As such, the agriculture industry generates 13.5% of Guatemala’s GDP and supports 31.4% of the labor force. Despite this, some of the population is excluded from the industry.
The systemic exclusion of indigenous populations from land access opportunities goes back to the Spanish colonial period in Guatemala. During this period, conquistadors took land from the existing Mayan residents. Like other Latin American countries, Guatemala’s colonial economy relied on extraction-based and agricultural activities. After having their land taken, the Maya were often exploited. They were forced to work for the Spanish conquistadors on the land that was taken from them.
Land access issues are evident in data on land ownership. In Guatemala, 88% of farms occupy only 16% of agricultural land, while the largest 2.5% of farms use 65% of the agricultural land. The inequality between large landowners and subsistence farmers, who farm only to meet the needs of their families, fuels huge wealth gaps. The wealthiest 10% of Guatemalans own almost 50% of the national wealth, while the poorest 10% own less than 1%.
These land access issues affect a large proportion of Guatemala’s population since 48% of Guatemalans live in rural areas. The rural population also represents the majority of Guatemala’s impoverished population. In 2014, 76.1% of the rural population lived in poverty and 35.3% lived in extreme poverty. Further, 93% of Guatemala’s extremely impoverished live in rural areas.
Guatemala’s Indigenous Population
Guatemala’s rural and indigenous populations closely overlap. More than 40% of Guatemala’s population is indigenous. The Maya make up 41.7% of the population, and 1.8% of Guatemalans are non-Mayan indigenous. Of Guatemala’s indigenous population, 79% live in poverty and 40% live in extreme poverty. As such, most of the indigenous population lives in rural areas, as 80% of the rural population is indigenous.
With poverty rates highest among indigenous and rural populations, land access issues disproportionately affect these groups. Many indigenous and rural farmers depend on farming inherited tracts of land to support themselves and their families. As those lands become less fertile due to natural disasters, resource depletion and overuse, subsistence farmers lose their main source of food and income. They then become more vulnerable to poverty and related issues, like food insecurity and malnutrition.
Past Attempts to Fix Land Access in Guatemala
Land rights in Guatemala have caused many conflicts in the country. In 1952, Guatemala’s President Árbenz passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which was meant to redistribute unused agricultural land to local farmers. This angered the landowning elites, who saw the land reform as a communist attempt to divest them of private property rights. These elites contributed to the ousting of Árbenz. After Árbenz was removed from office, his land reforms were reversed.
Following the U.S.-backed coup against Árbenz, Guatemala’s government became highly militarized, and the political divide between right-wing elites and left-wing groups spiraled into a 36-year civil war. Indigenous people suffered most during the conflict, with an estimated 83% of the more than 200,000 identified casualties being Mayan.
The U.N.-brokered Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace was signed in 1996. This officially concluded a seven-year peace negotiation process and ended the civil war. They attempted to address the legacies of the marginalization of Guatemala’s indigenous populations and of the inequitable land rights in Guatemala. In acknowledgment of the marginalization of indigenous populations in Guatemala, the Peace Accords called for the protection of indigenous land rights and compensation for lands previously taken from them. They also stated the need for increased political participation among indigenous populations.
Room for Improvement to Land Rights in Guatemala
Despite the promises of the Accords, Guatemala still has a long way to go in fixing indigenous land access and ownership issues. A lack of political will and power has slowed the implementation of the land rights plan outlined in the Accords. Indigenous persons in Guatemala continue to suffer forced evictions at the hands of the state. Even those who retain their land face decreased productivity and increased hardship, as the land’s fertility declines from overuse and erosion. Furthermore, indigenous and rural populations often lack access and knowledge of their land rights and how to protect them.
Overall, land rights in Guatemala are essential to supporting the livelihoods of indigenous and rural Guatemalans. Recently, international attention given to indigenous rights and legacies has increased globally. Thus, there is hope for Guatemala to receive the international support it needs to implement the land reforms described in the Peace Accords. Protecting indigenous and rural land rights is a necessary step to alleviating poverty in Guatemala.
– Camden Eckler