Academic journal article Human Organization

Land Tenure Delegitimation and Social Mobility in Tropical Peten, Guatemala

Academic journal article Human Organization

Land Tenure Delegitimation and Social Mobility in Tropical Peten, Guatemala

Article excerpt

Lack of legitimacy of land tenure institutions in the tropical Peten, Guatemala, contributes to tenure insecurity that encourages rapid colonization, deforestation, and forest conversion to agriculture. The author identifies social, political, and property rights trends that reduced the effectiveness of property rights in the Peten. Three case studies present the complexities of land tenure institutions. The first analyzes unregulated land invasions by small farmers, the second discusses land tenure barriers to protection of indigenous cooperatives, and the third analyzes attempts by the government and nongovernmental organizations to restrict settlements within the Maya Biosphere Reserve through negotiations. In the absence of operative legal land institutions, campesinos create land law by their invasions, presence, and practices. Unless campesinos are given a role within policy-making management decisions, there may be no means to restore legitimacy to land tenure in the Peten.

Key words: tropical deforestation, land tenure insecurity, colonization, cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations, Guatemala

Stable land tenure institutions impart rationality and regularity to a nation's social and economic transactions if defended by legitimate legal enforcement.

However, when social antagonisms produce political instability, the effective operation and enforcement of land tenure institutions diminishes. Governmental culpability in terms of selective enforcement of tenure legislation, ineffective punishment of willful violators, and institutionalization of differentiated access rights in favor of wealthy clientele often delegitimizes property rights systems and unleashes chaotic ecologically destructive forces driven by social inequities.

The case of Guatemala's tropical department of the Peten (see Figure 1) illustrates the tragic consequences of social conflict that destabilizes land tenure and leads to natural resource damage. Not a single property rights regime in the Peten--be it state, private, communal, or open-access (Bromley 1991)--is safe in the wake of colonization pressures brought to bear by land invasions by campesinos (small farmers and farmworkers). The gravity of the ecological calamity faced by one of Central America's most expansive blocks of tropical forest habitat is demonstrated by Peten statistics: population growth in the department is over 8 percent per year; 50 percent of its forests have been converted to agriculture in the last 25 years; 40,000 hectares of primary forest fall to slash and bum activities yearly (APESA 1992); 40 percent of private forests are severely degraded (Reyes Mayen, Alberto, and Larrazabal B. 1996); every one of the Peten's national parks and forest reserves except Tikal face fragmentation from expanding illegal campesino settlements.

The causes of tropical degradation in Guatemala reflect class inequities found elsewhere in the country (Berger 1992; Cambranes 1992; Smith 1990), but the Peten's physical isolation and post-1960 governmental autonomy left the area more as an appendage of national events than a participant in them until the mid-1980s. The rapidly escalating civil war in the late 1970s spurred Kekchi Maya migration northward into the sparsely populated Peten forests, initiating a colonization wave that swelled the population from 25,000 in 1964 to an estimated half million today. While authors have examined the Peten's deforestation (Beavers 1994), its inequitable farmsize differentiation (Gongora Zetina de Trujillo 1984), its governmental clientelism in favor of wealthy landowners (Schwartz 1987; Kaimowitz 1995), and its various tenure regimes (Strochlic 1994), the internal social dynamics that make spontaneous colonization movement so difficult to arrest remain obscure.

In the following pages, I address issues of colonization through an examination of land tenure systems--open-access, state, and cooperative property rights regimes--to shed light on the delicate balance of power between campesinos and the Guatemalan government in the tropical department of the Peten. …

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