An image of the country's flag.

In Guatemala, a history of discrimination and inequality of opportunity led to a 36-year conflict that finally subsided with a Peace Agreement in 1996. Improvements since then have prevented a return to conflict and begun to create the conditions for sustained stability. However, the persistence of substantial inequality constitutes a risk factor for future stability and constrains Guatemala’s growth potential.

Land distribution is highly unequal. The largest 2.5% of farms occupy nearly two-thirds of agricultural land while 90% of the farms are on only one-sixth of the agricultural land. Furthermore, tenure is insecure and is one of the key causes of poverty among indigenous Guatemalans, who make up 43% of the population. Multiple unresolved land disputes and ineffective mechanisms to resolve them discourage investment and reduce the potential contribution of agriculture to improvements in rural living standards and overall economic growth.

Guatemala’s extensive and biologically diverse forest systems are experiencing a rapid 1.3% annual rate of deforestation and losing their economic value due to forest fires, agricultural expansion, wildlife-poaching, and large-scale development projects. Increases in ongoing donor assistance to empower communities in resource management of this valuable forest system would help Guatemala achieve a greater, more sustainable yield from its forests and reduce the rate of deforestation.


  • Basic Land Law. Guatemala still lacks a basic land law that describes basic tenure types and addresses indigenous rights to land. These shortcomings make it difficult to resolve land conflicts, and leave the indigenous population without the means to obtain legal certainty regarding their interests and rights to land. Women are prevented from enjoying legal rights to land and are insecure in their access due to patriarchal customs and attitudes. Donors should support a Guatemalan review of the legal framework governing land, including family law, and provide recommendations for a basic land law and other laws that can reduce tenure insecurity, particularly among the indigenous population and women. The legal framework around land should explicitly support communal property rights and other ownership systems that are traditional in indigenous communities. Donors should consider recommending to Guatemala the development of a National Land Policy to inform drafting of such a land law.
  • Review of FONTIERRAS and Increased Support for the Landless. The Government of Guatemala (GOG) should assess FONTIERRA’s past performance and institutional capacity, to inform recommendations for improving upon its delivery of pro poor services and for improving transparency and accountability. It should also consider revisions to the land purchase program to include micro-plots for the landless and other programs to decrease the number of landless. households.
  • Conflict Resolution. Donors and the government should support national and local institutions (both formal and informal) in their efforts to resolve land disputes, including family law courts and indigenous systems and methods of resolution in order to improve those institutions’ knowledge of the law, as well as the accessibility, functionality, efficiency, and coordination of the institutions. This effort could include training on land rights and conflict-resolution methods as well as developing a land-rights curriculum for the law schools, and piloting a rural legal aid program that engages and trains local residents to serve as paralegals in rural communities.
  • Information Campaign. Donors should consider support for implementation of a public information and awareness campaign on the existence and importance of land rights of the rural poor as well as indigenous populations, with an emphasis on women’s land rights.
  • National Water Policy. There is no national policy or law governing the use and protection of water resources; this lack perpetuates an environment where the resource is poorly managed and conserved. Donors could support a Guatemalan review of the legal framework governing water resources, and assist in conducting an assessment of water use and protection to inform recommendations for a basic national water policy and law and the governmental agency charged with implementation.
  • Forestry Resources. Too little is being done to maintain the rich biodiversity and long-term sustainability of Guatemala’s forestry resources. This reduces forests’ potential to contribute to improved livelihoods and sustainable economic growth. Donors should continue support of forestry and livelihood initiatives, including support for the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Donors should also assist the GOG to assess impacts of extraction and reforestation concessions to determine if such concessions are ensuring sustainable forest management.
  • Mining Resources. Donors could support the reformation of the current Mining Law to include environmental and human rights protections. They could additionally support the reformation of the current royalty scheme to ensure that a percentage of mining profits is invested in local communities. Finally, donors could encourage compliance to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries to ensure that local populations are consulted prior to mineral exploration or exploitation.


Guatemala has a history of rural poverty, distorted land distribution patterns, and severe income inequality. Land-related issues were a fundamental cause of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War, which ended in 1996. The Peace Accords attempted to address land issues, including access for the poor, legal reform, and land administration. However, political will for reform has been limited, and Guatemala inequitable and concentrated Central America.

Land conflicts are a major issue in Guatemala. Observers have noted that the country’s economic development and competitiveness will be stunted until land conflicts are addressed. Although widespread violence in the near future isunlikely, land disputes could lead to political instability.

Tenure insecurity is one of the key causes of poverty among these groups. The rural population comprises 52% of the total population, of which 80% is indigenous. Three-quarters of the rural population live in poverty, which correlates with their geographic isolation and ethnic exclusion. The Guatemalan Civil War and resulting human rights abuses led to the displacement of between 500,000 and 1.5 million people. Many of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) moved to informal squatter settlements in and near Guatemala City. Guatemala’s over 200 informal settlements are characterized by inadequate housing and hazardous living conditions. Twenty-three percent of children living in these settlements suffer from malnutrition.

Although there are no legal restrictions on women’s access and rights to land, the percentage of female landowners is extremely low due to prevailing patriarchal influences. Within indigenous communities, women are even more marginalized. Women-headed households, particularly those headed by indigenous women, are more susceptible to poverty.

Guatemala is rich in water resources, primarily from streams and lakes. However, surface water is unevenly distributed, seasonal and often polluted. Water resources are stressed by growing demand, deforestation and agricultural pressure. Contamination by biological and chemical agents occurs in varying degrees throughout the country. This problem is compounded by the limited capacity of sewage systems in urban centers; raw effluent flows directly into the streams.

Guatemala has one of the most extensive and biologically diverse forest systems in Central America. Some 2.8 million hecares of forest are protected under the Guatemalan Protected Areas System. The Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Mesoamerica, is threatened by forest fires, unsustainable agricultural expansion, poaching, and poorly planned large-scale development projects. These threats have resulted in rapid deforestation.

Mineral exploration and exploitation is contentious in Guatemala. Mining Laws encourage investment in the mineral sector, but do not offer strong environmental or human rights protections. Local communities near mining projects have allegedly had their property forcibly expropriated, been compensated below the market value of their land, and have been made ill as a result of the chemicals used in the mining process.

Published / Updated: August 2010