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Guatemala Blog Series

The author

My name is Jur Schuurman and for the past year I have been blogging about land governance in Guatemala, where I lived from September 2017 till May 2019 (I am now based in Costa Rica). I have been involved with LANDac for several years now, first as the representative of one of the partners, i.e. Agriterra, and later (2016-2017) more directly as researcher, panel chair in LANDac conferences and (co-)author of documents such as Strengthening land governance for development. Highlights of LANDac 2010-2016.

I have tried to tell the story of Guatemalan land issues from many perspectives: land ownership and tenure, urban and rural land use, the (non-) governmental institutional setting, connections to international platforms and last but not least, the way land governance is affected by the context of what is in fact a failed (or failing) state. Concrete cases illustrate these general concepts.

I hope you enjoy reading the instalments! If you do (and if you don’t!), you can contact me at or write to

Update Guatemala Blog Series – Land governance in Guatemala: a new setback

14 September 2020

In April 2019, I published a story on a land conflict in San José Sinaché, a small town in Guatemala (see, as an example of the reality behind the figures in the database of the Secretaría de Asuntos Agrarios (the Department for Agrarian Affairs – SAA). A year later, Guatemalan president Alberto Giammattei decided to close down the Department, arguing that the money saved by this decision would be better spent matching a project by the World Food Program (WFP) aiming at providing 200,000 infants (between 6 and 24 months of age) with food supplements.

While it is undeniable that child malnutrition in Guatemala is a drama of its own, with as many as 70% of all children in the Western Highlands being affected, it is highly questionable whether the elimination of the SAA is the right way to liberate funds for the WFP project. The Department is one of three institutions that were created as a corollary of the Peace Agreements of 1996, together with the Register of Cadastral Information and FONTIERRAS (see also instalment # 7 of the LANDac blog on land governance in Guatemala). All three institutions relate to land tenure, and that is no coincidence: land concentration and tenure insecurity are the root of many problems in Guatemala, including the 1960-1996 civil war. Abolishing the SAA, i.e. the institution that made a good effort at monitoring and solving land conflicts, is exactly what the country does not need – in addition to this decision being in flagrant non-compliance with the Peace Agreements: it is the state of Guatemala that is committed to them, not any specific government that happens to be in power.

But that does not mean that we are witnessing an error of judgment on the government’s side. On the contrary: the SAA’s success and efficacy were probably the very reasons for closing it down and integrating it in a presidential Commission on Human Rights, where ‘integrating’ has to be read as ‘watering down’, since the SAA has always been a nail in the coffin of Guatemala’s landed elite. An elite that has all but captured the state, including the president. In short, the decision is one more example of the tenacity with which a small minority holds on to its privileges.

What all of this means for the conflict in San José Sinaché, still far from being settled, is unclear but it does not look good. By the end of 2019, positions on both sides were more inflexible than ever (Prensa Libre, 13 December 2019). The mediating and knowledgeable role of the SAA might turn out to be sorely missed.

Picture top of page: Tikal National Park at sunrise. Tikal, Guatemala. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID (2017). No changes made.