Guatemala: Land Distribution History

Pacific Ecologist, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Guatemala: Land Distribution History

Land ownership in Guatemala has been highly inequitable since the Spanish conquest and efforts at reform in the 1950s were opposed by the US with a coup d'etat reversing reform. Inequity results in unbalanced direction of public resources to the agro-export sector. US support has given incentives for export agriculture, helping large sugarcane producers and strengthened repression of workers as a 'warning' against future land redistribution. Peasant organisations demand food sovereignty and crop diversification.

Guatemala's landownership system has its roots in the Spanish conquest, when land was taken from indigenous populations and given to the new colonizers. After independence in 1821, land ownership remained highly unequal. Producers of crops for export such as sugar cane forced Indigenous people off their lands toward higher altitudes, where cold climates were inadequate for the traditional cultivation of milpa, a mix of corn and beans.

Today the rural population of Guatemala still suffer from one of the most unjust systems of land distribution in the world. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle, and Food, 0.15% of all Guatemala's producers control 700 of all arable land and produce only for export, while, 96% of all producers occupy barely 20% of all lands. In the countryside, 90% of people live in poverty and over 500,000 families live below the subsistence level. Guatemala historically has one of the largest rural populations in Latin America, comprising 69% of the population. Over 50% of all workers are involved in agriculture.

Diverse analyses suggest crop lands in Guatemala have become more concentrated over time. Between 1964 and 1979, the number of agricultural lands with less than 3.5 hectares doubled and the average size of those lands smaller than 7 hectares dropped from 2.4 hectares to 1.8 hectares between 1950 and 1979. Analyzing data of the Agricultural Census of 1979, we verify there was an extremely unequal distribution of land: 88% of all properties had an area smaller than 7 hectares for family subsistence, accounting for 16% of all arable lands, while barely more than a% of all farms maintained ownership of 65% of all arable lands.


More than thirty years of intervention by different governments has not affected land concentration and the exclusive agrarian structure or the dualism between the agro-export model and the internal domestic consumption model. Most land is concentrated in few hands and large landowners dominate areas where land is most fertile in the southern part of the country, on the Pacific coast. This region is known for its concentrated sugar cane production, controlled by large businesses and plantations. The National Coordination of Indigenous and Farm Workers Communities (CONIC) reports that in mountain districts, the problem of large landowners has become endemic, and a large percentage of the indigenous population has migrated, due to lack of available arable lands. Over 60% of the economically active rural population in mountain districts is estimated to migrate during the year in search of employment.

Concentrated land ownership from historic confiscation of indigenous lands, has serious consequences for sustainable land use, for self-sufficiency of small farmers, and for food sovereignty. This inequitable agrarian regime also results in unbalanced direction of public resources towards the agro-export sector, to the detriment of food production for the domestic market.

Agrarian reform efforts

Juan Jose Arevalo became Guatemala's president in 1945 Promoting a new constitution to establish "social property" and eradicate large farms. At this time, the 22 largest landowners possessed more lands than around 250 peasant families. The Supplemental Land Title Law was approved, determining land title concessions to landholders who had cultivated the land for over ten years.

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