Guatemala: the forgotten women

Land tenure in Guatemala, characterised by serious imbalances, inequalities and injustices, has been and continues to be a key and unresolved factor in the life and history of Guatemala. The struggle for land was one of the main triggers for the internal armed conflict, and the 1996 Peace Accords included among its main points the resolution of the land issue. However, it has never been possible to define an explicit policy that addresses the problem of the extreme concentration of property whilst recognising the social function of the land. After decades of agrarian policies promoted by successive governments access to land continues to evade many people, especially women and indigenous populations.[1]

Since the Spanish invasion, women have been the forgotten ones in this matter.[2] The Peace Accords include the need to take into account and eradicate discrimination against women in access to land and credit loans, but in practice the equal distribution of land continues to be an unfulfilled objective of the Accords. And although there is a National Gender Policy in Guatemala, which claims to guarantee women’s access to land ownership, co-ownership, tenure, use and usufruct, inequality based on ethnicity and gender persists.[3]

The key role of refugee women

Refugee women played a key role during the internal armed conflict. The organisation Mama Maquín, which has dedicated its efforts to fighting for women’s rights to land and participation, is a clear example of this. It was founded in 1990 by Guatemalan women refugees in Mexico, who chose its name in memory of the q’eqchi’ leader Adelina Caal Maquín. This indigenous woman defender was murdered, along with many other people, in the Panzós massacre, while leading a march for the right to land. It was also refugee women who led one of the first discussions on women’s land ownership in Guatemala, they are therefore a central point of reference when discussing this issue.[4]

The role of women in sustaining the family economy, and therefore in family survival, is unquestionable. However, there are many obstacles that prevent them from participating actively in rural development and in the implementation of agrarian policies that directly affect their lives and those of their families.

1706 Rio Polochic 2
Villagers from the Río Polochic 2 community tend their community rice fields. In 2011, 629 families from 14 communities were violently evicted in the Polochic River Valley due to land conflicts. In 2016, 67 of the evicted families managed to acquire and legalise a plot in Panzos, Alta Verapaz. Today they have developed a community project to produce rice, rubber, corn, cattle and chickens. Photo: James Rodríguez. Photo part of the exhibition “Vivir defendiendo derechos. 20 relatos gráficos por la defensa de los derechos humanos” shown in Madrid during 2017

The Land Fund, a state programme with a gender focus?

In response to the commitments made in the Peace Accords on the agrarian issue, the Land Fund (Fontierras) was created in 1999. This state mechanism enables access to land through purchase and sale, providing credits for small-scale producers to purchase land.

However, in practice the work carried out by Fontierras has been widely criticised by different agrarian and social organisations. They report poor quality and high prices for lands that small-scale farmers have had to buy; in fact it has been shown that many landowners took advantage of the opportunity to get rid of their worst farm lands by selling them at prices well above their value. The low quality of many of the lands and, above all, the lack of infrastructure and technical assistance, has prevented the farmers from developing the lands productively and has created a serious debt problem. In addition there has been a lack of action carried out in favour of populations in rural areas, which has led to high rates of malnutrition, especially among young girls and boys.[5]

Despite its clear failures, Fontierras appears to be the only state institution that guarantees and recognises women’s right to co-ownership of land titles. Efforts have been made on gender issues, as reflected in the creation of the Special Land Leasing Program. Axel López, general manager of Fontierras, says that 58% of the beneficiaries of the Leasing Program are women.[6] This percentage shows that women who have access to land in Guatemala can only achieve this by renting a plot, since the Leasing Program does not allow them to become the owners of the land.[7] The requirements to access land are complicated, because as Axel López points out, the women are required to have family responsibilities in order to apply and women who are single or without children, and those who have a profession, are not allowed to apply.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that in Guatemala 80% of indigenous women have a close relationship with the land and with agricultural activity in general. According to the same source, 23.6% of the total farm land is in the hands of indigenous people, around 6.5% corresponds to farms headed by women and almost 70% corresponds to households headed by non-indigenous men. The amount of farm land in indigenous hands is less than half of the percentage of the indigenous population, a result of the history of expropriation to which this sector has been subjected.[8]

Refugee women played a key role during the internal armed conflict. It was also refugee women who led one of the first discussions on women’s land ownership in Guatemala

Socio-cultural obstacles

According to Ana Patricia Castillo Huertas, indigenous peoples have maintained a different relationship with the land, not only in a philosophical but also in a material sense. The earth, and more broadly, territory, is understood as the basis for community reproduction, where community roots, life, work, health, wisdom and culture reside.[9] Rural and indigenous women have a very close and special relationship with the land.

The women interviewed highlight patriarchy as a major obstacle in women’s access to land. According to María Corina Ramírez[10]  the difficulty is that patriarchal attitudes are rife and men regularly say things like “she is a woman and does not belong to the earth”. They see women as objects to be used for sex, to do domestic work, to have children and do not give them the value that they truly deserve. Telma Iris Pérez Oloroso affirms that in many communities women are afraid and ashamed to claim their rights. A woman, because she is a woman, belongs to the home, to domestic work, she has to wash dishes and she is never given opportunities for participation and education.

Despite this situation there is still room for optimism and hope. There are a number of examples of this. Axel López mentions the collaboration between Fontierras and some fifty women’s organisations from the Weaving Strength for Good Living National Association, which aims to include women’s perspectives in the development of programs to facilitate their access to land. In addition, within some small-scale farming organisations, women are beginning to receive training with interesting results, such as those described by Telma Iris Pérez Oloroso: women may not own land, but they continue to fight together, some have recovered their land and are working on their plots to diversify crops, to feed themselves, to feed their family and their community.

PBI Guatemala


[1] Recmuric: Tierra para nosotras. Propuestas políticas de las mujeres rurales centroamericanas para el acceso a la tierra. Guatemala, El Salvador y Nicaragua, 2015
[2] Interview with Telma Iris Pérez Oloroso, 5 May 2016
[3] Política Nacional de Promoción y Desarrollo Integral de las Mujeres y Plan de Equidad de Oportunidades 2002-2023, p. 31, Guatemala, 2009.
[4] Fian Internacional: Mujeres toman el poder de la tierra: Acceso a la tierra como una estrategia de empoderamiento de mujeres indígenas en Guatemala. Germany, 2007
[5] Castillo, A.: Unicef: Guatemala ocupa el quinto lugar de desnutrición a nivel mundial, La Hora. Guatemala, 28 November 2014
[6] Interview with Axel López, 26 May 2016
[7] Op. Cit., Fian
[8] UNDP: Informe Nacional de Desarrollo Humano 2002. Desarrollo Humano, Mujeres y Salud, Guatemala
[9] Castillo Huertas, A.P.: Las mujeres y la tierra en Guatemala: entre el colonialismo y el mercado neoliberal. Editorial Serviprensa, Guatemala, 2015
[10] Interview with María Corina Ramírez, 5 May 2016

*Cover photo: James Rodríguez.

Photo part of the exhibition “Vivir defendiendo derechos. 20 relatos gráficos por la defensa de los derechos humanos” shown in Madrid during 2017

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