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Land security leading to food security in Guatemala

Civil war has left a crippling legacy of poverty (World Bank)
Civil war has left a crippling legacy of poverty
World Bank

Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended in 1996 and the country now enjoys political stability. But the years of conflict, coupled with long-standing oppression of indigenous peoples, has left Guatemalans with a crippling legacy of poverty and insecurity. The deep divide between rich and poor is a characteristic of the region, but Guatemalan society is almost certainly the most inequitable. Rates of illiteracy, infant mortality and chronic malnutrition are the highest in the region and particularly widespread in the countryside and among indigenous communities.

Despite the impact of falling world coffee prices, limited land availability and the extensive damage caused by mudslides after Hurricane Stan in October 2005, exports to neighbouring countries and the US are booming; these include sugar, bananas, coffee and non-traditional agricultural products, including winter vegetables and cut flowers. But Guatemala has one of the most skewed land distribution systems in the world with around two per cent of the population owning more than 70 per cent of all productive farmland.

Land security a first step to food and income security

The lack of an adequate land ownership register in Guatemala is described by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) as "a serious hindrance to economic development, particularly for the country's impoverished smallscale farmers." The government of Sweden is therefore supporting efforts to train Guatemalans - over 400 so far - as land surveyors, and to create a modern and reliable land register. "Ultimately," Sida states, "the project will also enhance equality, since both women and men may be registered as landowners, and with land as collateral, it will be easier for women to secure loans and to take control of their own finances."

Edgar Pineda, project manager for Swedish Technical Assistance, an agency funded by Sida to move the land registry process forward, says, "It has been shown in many developing countries that providing legal security by establishing a land register promotes food and income security, as well as security for family dwellings. Such is the hope for Guatemala." He reflects that the process of registering ownership has been impossible in the past because of missing information on the ownership, contents and geographic situation of a large number of properties. "Therefore," he continues, "when the final peace agreements were signed ten years ago, the establishing of a national cadastre (property description) was one of the issues agreed upon." An initial version of a framework for a registry was developed, which became the Registro de Información Catastral in 2005.

Data on approximately 150,000 properties has been gathered, but this is only about five per cent of the estimated number of properties in the country. Despite the seemingly slow progress, Pineda says what has been accomplished so far serves as "a reliable basis for obtaining the same degree of security for those who do not yet possess it." Although it will take perhaps 20 years to complete the registry, Pineda sees it as a necessary step "in order to achieve benefits for society and landowners, not only by securing land rights and facilitating the land market, but also by improving economic and social development, environment planning and monitoring, and making land tax a more efficient instrument for financing local development."

Certification protects the land

Food security is a major issue in land reform efforts (World Bank)
Food security is a major issue in land reform efforts
World Bank

At the same time as the registry is expanded, aid agencies are providing an improved quality of life for Guatemalans, who both presently hold title to the land they farm and those who are working towards it. The Rainforest Alliance and Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), for example, support families to improve profits while reducing the environmental impact on the land through certifying both forestry and agricultural practices. For example, compliance with the Rainforest Alliance 'SmartWood' program is required in limited land-use leases offered by the government to indigenous Mayan communities in the northern Peten province. Certified community forestry practices include judicious tree harvesting, development of smallscale tourism and furniture-building businesses, as well as the harvesting of certain local plant leaves for export.

So far, Rainforest Alliance has also certified a total of 35 banana farms, 128 coffee farms, one cocoa farm and two fern/flower farms in Guatemala. These farms enjoy improved profitability and competitiveness because the organisation's "seal of approval" allows farmers to market certified products at a premium and also gives farmers improved access to credit. To become certified, farmer must show that they are using sustainable practices such as reducing pollution, water use and soil erosion, and that they are using farm by-products such as banana stems, coffee pulp and orange peels as fertiliser.

A forthcoming CFC project in Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago, is aimed at improving the income of rural families growing citrus fruits. The project will supply smallholders with healthy, high-yielding trees and lay the foundations for a regional certification programme through CFC sanctioned workshops, training guidelines and increased public awareness about poverty reduction in rural sectors.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: November 2007


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