10 – Foto Katheleen Hertle

Women and land in Guatemala: an ancient problem without a solution

By Fabio Cresto Aleína

“The land is not only the place where we live and cultivate. The land is our mother because it gives us what we eat, it gives us everything we like the water falling from the sky that is kept in the soil; the land makes the trees grow and because of this we get the air. […] we as a people, as a culture, we cannot exist if we do not stick to the land where we were born; the land that unifies us is part and source of our culture and here in our land we have been resisting for all these centuries”.

Guadalupe García, woman Maya Mam and social activist, interviewed in 2013, from the study “Las mujeres y la tierra en Guatemala: entre el colonialismo y el mercado neoliberal”, by Ana Patricia Castillo Huertas.


Land and natural resources constitute part of the fundamental rights for rural populations all around the world. In Guatemala, after the colonization by the Spaniards in the XVI century, indigenous populations had been progressively excluded from the possession of the land and women have historically been one of the parts of the population most affected. 

Irene Velásquez, responsible for the Unit of Gender and Equality of the National Forestry Institute (INAB) about the current situation says: “Women keep having this gap in land ownership, because of the patriarchal system rooted [in out culture] since the times of the colonization does not allow women, for being women, could manage the land”. However, when women had the chance of accessing the land, they participated in the decision making about the use and the managing of natural resources with creative ideas. The participation of women has always been an advantage to the communities and for the development of the country. According to the Fondo de Tierras, a governmental institution having among its goals the formal inclusion of women as landowners, within the period 1998-2014 around 2,225 benefited of governmental incentives, representing the 10.7% of the total beneficiaries, vs 18,438 men (89.3%). Such numbers reflect the asymmetry in how the system grants credits for the acquisition of lands.

Governmental institutions such as INAB, despite not having direct jurisdiction in the agrarian problem and in the redistribution of the land, through the Program of Incentives for Small Landowners (PINPEP) promotes the participation of women in the administration of forest resources. Irene Velásquez explains: “The implementation of PINPEP has been a positive action to promote the participation of women in accessing the forest incentives, as it establishes that it is necessary to prioritize the participation of groups of women. This action helped women to be involved in the management of forest resources”. The Program of Forest Incentives (PINFOR) until 2006 showed a very low percentage of participation of women in the forestry sector (15%), especially if compared to the 25% of collective projects and to the 60% of projects leaded by men. Irene says: “Since 2007 the participation of women raised, reaching the current 36% of women benefitting of PINPEP”. In particular, one of the most notables and successful experiences has been the assistance and the capacitation of 288 women in 2015 in San Miguel Sigüillá (Quetzaltenango) for the success of a community project, a project that still continues today and that it is still giving great results for the local women involved. This experience won in 2017 the Premio Forestal en la Categoría de Proyectos Energéticos. At the same time, the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) is promoting the incorporation of a gender focus in the strategic instruments regulating the activities of the Council itself, for example “in the technical guidelines for the elaboration of master plans, which are the main documents to design programs and projects that benefit men and women” explains Marina Leticia López, responsible for the Gender Unit in CONAP.

There are other successful initiatives demonstrating the commitment of some governmental institutions to support women participation in the different sector of land ownership and use. The information generated by INAB and other institutions about land ownership, also thanks to the efforts of people like Irene, Marina and their colleagues in various governmental institutions, meticulously distinguishes between men and women and thanks to this information it is possible to analyze problems and areas of intervention to tackle issues more effectively. Because of this kind of information, the Guatemalan institutions can elaborate objectives to improve the situation in their strategic plans. An example of the use of these data is what is currently happening in the process of updating the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a commitment the country is making in front of the international community representing an update of the 2015 Paris Agreements. With the help of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) is leading the elaboration of a new environmental policy on adaptation and mitigation of climate change that includes considerations about the situation of women and of the indigenous people. Irene and Marina, with their colleagues in the institutions have been involved in the process of the elaboration these new objectives and they provided invaluable help to state these considerations that Guatemala will present at the COP26 in Glasgow.

However, the situation keeps being difficult. Incentives such as PINPEP do not have a legal certainty and depend on the annual budget of the institutions: “Without such certainty it will be impossible to advance in the recuperation of wooded areas. Often the budgets [of the institutions] are not enough and there is a lack of field personnel to improve the interventions. I think that any public policy instrument should be updated after a certain time to cover and tackle the new issues one encounters and to improve the situation” states Irene Velásquez. Marina Leticia López of CONAP agrees about Irene’s concerns: “This year in particular we experienced threats for the future of the role of women: the current government in the new cabinet did not prioritize the appointment of women in key positions. Moreover, for more than a year the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM), the lead agency of a public policy that promotes the integral development of women and a plan for equity and opportunities has not been appointed”. It has also been rumored that the government is planning to shut down SEPREM altogether, and such rumors had repercussions in some governmental agencies that marginalized their Gender Unities. On top of that, climate change is a terrible threat for the most vulnerable parts of the populations like women, because of their lack of ownership of land and resources. This threat affects particularly indigenous women as they see their traditional sources of food, medicine, and water endangered.

The future of the role of women in the forestry sector and in the use of land depends on resolving the agrarian problem and on the renewal of incentives such as PINPEP. The redistribution of the land (in particular among the indigenous people, the original owners of the land) and of the resources is vital to guarantee the decrease of the vulnerability of the population and to guarantee a better equity in the use of such resources.

Cover photo: Kathleen Hertle.