Land Reform and Conflict in Guatemala

In rural Guatemala, poor mostly indigenous farmers scrape off a living on the nation¡s poorest soils while wealthy finca (large plantation) owners reap the benefits of an agricultural system based on international exports and the exploitation of cheap labor. Guatemala has one of the most skewed land distribution patterns in the world and the second most inequitable in Latin America–roughly 2 percent of the population owns 70 percent of all productive farmland. This has led to fierce and often violent land conflicts between poor campesinos (farmers) and a powerful landed elite that maintains dominance vis-a-vis close ties to the government.

A Long History of Land Conflict and Inequality

Guatemala¡s inequitable land distribution system is rooted in the Spanish conquest, when land seized from the indigenous populations was granted to colonizers. The Spanish usurped the nation¡s richest soils and exploited the indigenous labor force in order to sell products such as sugar and cacao on European markets. Indigenous farmers were relocated to the most unproductive farmlands where they barely survived off of subsistence farming.

Independence from Spain in 1821 brought few rewards to Guatemala¡s rural indigenous population. The emerging class of wealthy ladinos (non-indigenous) gained increasing control over land and labor. Coffee became the nation¡s largest export, and a powerful elite of coffee growers forced farmers to abandon their lands in order to further agribusiness interests. As communal land tenure disappeared and export crop growers forced indigenous villagers to relocate to less productive highland areas, many campesinos were compelled to migrate to coastal plantations in search of work.

Land ownership became increasingly concentrated until Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz initiated the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952, which called for the expropriation of mostly idle lands from large plantation owners to be redistributed to poor farmers. The reform, which benefited an estimated 100,000 families, threatened the holdings of large landowners and powerful foreign companies, especially the North American-owned United Fruit Company.

Under the guise of combating communism, the U.S. government ordered a CIA-orchestrated coup to oust Arbenz in 1954. The democratically-elected president was replaced by a U.S.-backed general who annulled the majority of the land expropriations, returning the territory to its previous owners. In the following decades a civil war ensued, pitting military dictatorships against a leftist guerilla insurgency. The best lands were rewarded to military officers and rich land-owners tied to the military regimes, thus cementing the system of inequitable land distribution.

Indeed, land ownership was one of the most controversial components of the 1996 Peace Accords, which charged the state with the task of providing land to peasant farmers. The stipulations of the accords, however, have yet to be implemented, and Guatemala remains a panorama of inequality and poverty– the same ills that have devastated the nation since the Spanish conquest.

The Agrarian Problem Today

Today, Guatemala has the largest rural population in Central America-over 60 percent of its inhabitants depend on agriculture to survive. Yet available land is shrinking as rural families grow and expansive tracts devoted to export agriculture are concentrated into fewer hands. The United States and international institutions such as the World Bank have pressured Guatemala to employ an agricultural export model that allows multinational food corporations and wealthy finca owners to reap the benefits of the country¡s rich agricultural environment and cheap labor source, while the majority of the population survives on tiny subsistence-oriented plots.

On the steep slopes of the Western Highlands, where most subsistence farms are located, intensive land cultivation has led to soil degradation. Rural families suffer from severe malnutrition and inadequate living conditions: more than half lack running water and electricity. Illiteracy also plagues rural communities, where financial constraints prevent many children from attending school.

Rural poverty has led to an increase in migration. Many farmers must supplement their harvests by working as seasonal laborers on large coffee, banana and sugar plantations on the southern coast while others have migrated to urban areas in search of wage labor. However, according to Jose Luis Aguilar of the Pastoral de la Tierra in Quetzaltenango, migrants often encounter worse conditions in urban areas: “They lack the resources to buy land or houses, so they go to marginal zones where there is a lot of crime, delinquency and narco-trafficking. They live in truly horrendous conditions.” More recently, many poor farmers have chosen to migrate to the United States, and funds sent home from workers in the U.S. are many families¡ only means of survival.

Impediments to Accessing Land

In order to combat rural poverty, the peace accords established a land market system and the government land fund FONTIERRAS to facilitate poor farmers¡ access to land. The fund offers credit to campesinos to buy idle state lands or private fincas sold on the market while simultaneously providing technical assistance to its beneficiaries to make acquired lands productive.

However, the market system has been largely ineffective, and lands have not been adequately redistributed. This is due in part to large landowners¡ tendency to sell low quality land at inflated prices, forcing campesinos to incur a crippling debt which they find impossible to repay. Aguilar notes that “it is difficult to implement productive agricultural projects because many times the fincas are in poor conditions or they do not have infrastructure such as schools, roads and electricity.” Farmers must use all their income to repay the debt rather than invest it as capital to make the project productive. Many have thus been forced to abandon the land or return it to the government.

In addition, FONTIERRAS suffers from a severe lack of finances. Its budget is too small to purchase all the lands requested and hire personnel to provide technical assistance. According to the United Nations, current budget levels would allow FONTIERRAS to adequately meet approximately 5 percent of the claims of landless families.

Without the help of FONTIERRAS, it is practically impossible for campesinos to enter the land market because most lack sufficient savings to purchase large tracts of land. In addition, as Guatemala does not have a well-established property system, many who do possess land have no legal documentation to prove ownership. Guatemala is currently the only country in Central America that lacks a national catastro, or property registry, that acurately covers all landholdings, and some estimate that over half of Guatemalan landholdings are not currently registered. In many cases, several titleholders claim the same land, which often leads to fierce land disputes.

In recent years, the land crisis has been exacerbated by a global “coffee crisis,” which began in 2000. Coffee prices in Guatemala and throughout Central America have plummeted since Asian countries, especially Vietnam, have begun producing large amounts of coffee at lower prices. Coffee plantations throughout Guatemala have since halted production, resulting in rampant unemployment in the countryside. Farmers who traditionally migrated from their small plots to seek jobs harvesting at plantations now find that there is no available work. Industry other than agriculture barely exists in rural areas. As workers are dismissed, they are also expelled from their homes and the land they have cultivated for decades.

Poor Campesinos Retake the Land

With no other means of survival, evicted families frequently retake the land. Increasingly desperate groups of poor farmers have taken to occupying idle lands or refusing to vacate plots which they have traditionally cultivated. In most cases of land occupation, campesinos are pressuring for the payment of their wages or the right to cultivate the terrain from which they were evicted. Campesinos are often forcibly removed from the land by police or landowners¡ private security. Since president Oscar Berger took office in January, the number of evictions has drastically increased. The National Civil Police have set fire to crops, burned houses, and murdered campesino leaders and rural families. Many campesino families have been left homeless as a result.
During his political campaign, Berger promised to prioritize agrarian problems, but has offered no concrete land proposal and has not suspended evictions as promised. Campesinos groups do not anticipate radical agrarian reform, given the president¡s close ties to finca owners.

The Agrarian Platform

In light of the state¡s virtual silence on this pertinent issue, several campesino, indigenous, religious and human rights organizations across Guatemala have formed the Plataforma Agraria, a group of non-state actors that has proposed sweeping reforms to Guatemala¡s land tenure system. Central to this coalition¡s analysis is a condemnation of the centuries of exploitation that Guatemala¡s poor indigenous majority has endured and the resulting unequal distribution of land and wealth.

The Agrarian Platform proposes to reform the market-based land distribution system to make land accessible to poor farmers. Its members advocate the redistribution of land by expropriating estates taken illegally during the armed conflict and taxing idle land to obligate landowners to create jobs or give the property to landless agricultural workers. In the interest of promoting sustainable rural development, they propose that the government provide technical assistance, credit and market information to small farmers to enable them to produce for sale rather than just subsistence.
In addition, the Agrarian Platform is pressuring the government to secure property and labor rights. They advocate a national land registry to ensure proof of property ownership and legislative reform to guarantee the fulfillment of employers’ obligations.

Unfortunately, the government has not been very responsive to the proposal, claiming that it represents only a small sector of society and not the interests of the campesino population as a whole. Aguilar and others see this as a mere excuse not to implement the much-needed reform. Aguilar holds that “the agrarian conflict in Guatemala is an historical conflict, and the majority of the governments haven’t been interested in resolving it. The governments have been manipulated by people with economic power and people tied to the oligarchy. They have done everything possible not to resolve the situation.” Given the government’s history of supporting the economically powerful at the expense of the poor majority, it is unlikely that the nation¡s unjust land tenure system will be dismantled by the new administration.

Members of the Plataforma Agraria have therefore proposed their own solution to the agrarian problem to foment true rural development in hopes of finally bringing an end to Guatemala¡s centuries-long system of inequality.

LISA VISCIDI is editor-in-chief of EntreMundos Newspaper, based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. She can be reached at