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Social and economic development in four Ladino communities of eastern Guatemala: A comparative description

Gilles Bergeron



This paper puts the four INCAP longitudinal study villages in their economic and social setting. Beginning with a short historical account of the formation of Ladino peasantries in Guatemala, it then recounts the particular history of each of the villages, describes their basic ecological features, and gives a more detailed description of the systems of production now found in each village. Differences related to the income-earning strategies available, to the allocation of household labour, and to the participation of women in income-earning activities are particularly examined. Differences are also noted in the infrastructures of the communities and their demographic features. All these differences may have important effects, either individually or interactively, on the nutrition of individuals. Additional research is needed to assess the magnitude of these effects on the nutrition status of the study participants.


In 1969 the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) initiated a study of the effects of protein and energy supplementation on the growth and development of preschool children in four villages of eastern Guatemala. The supplementation phase lasted until 1977, but the data it generated are still being analysed. The communities were initially selected on the basis of their similarity: located close to one another, sharing the Ladino cultural heritage (Spanish-speaking and wearing Western-style clothing), and of approximately the same size. It was assumed, therefore, that all the villages, were drawn from the same universe. As time went by, however, and as Guatemala's rural economy changed in response to changing national and international environments, substantial differences emerged among these villages. In the last two decades their traditional, narrow, rural horizon exploded as the rural and urban sectors became increasingly interwoven and new employment opportunities were created outside agriculture. Also, new demands were made and new pressures imposed on the agricultural sector.

In the course of adaptation, households moved from a primarily subsistence orientation toward a new complex of strategies, integrating—often within the same family—commercial agriculture, urban wage work, seasonal migration, and remittances from far-away relatives. In this process the peculiar comparative advantages of each community were played out, leading in each case to specific adaptations.

Concurrently, changes occurred in the organization of production and in the social and sex divisions of labour. As a result, these communities are now fairly distinct from one another in a number of respects.

This paper describes these differences deliberately from a material standpoint, focusing on the economic organization of family units rather than on cultural elements. All the participants in the study share Ladino cultural traits, and the cultural differences between them are minor. Focusing on economic aspects naturally leads to questions related to the interface between household organization, income sources, and resource flows on one hand and the nutrition of household members on the other.

The information comes from a variety of sources. I consulted historical documents to place the communities in their proper context and conducted key informant surveys to obtain qualitative information on the more recent situation. The main source of quantitative data is two socio-economic surveys— referred to as the R10 surveys—conducted by INCAP in 1974 and in 1987, which use the same format, so that the data between the two time periods can most usefully be compared and discussed. Other sources of data occasionally used are census surveys conducted by INCAP in the four villages in 1967, 1977, and 1987. Although the census surveys cover a time period that is more appropriate for this description, the socio-economic information they contain is rather concise, for which reason I have preferred the R10s which provide richer information.

The Oriente: Social and physical characteristics

The agricultural sector in Guatemala is usually characterized as dual [1], comprising both a small number of large farms engaged in commercial agriculture and a large number of small family farms involved in subsistence cropping, petty commodity production, and the casual sale of labour to the commercial sector. All the families studied by INCAP belong to the latter group. It may be deceptive, however, to view this sector as a homogeneous whole. Various peasant subsectors may (and generally do) coexist side by side, each having to confront conditions determined independently by the forms of production in which it engages' the particular social and ethnic identification attached to its community, and the overall economic context within which it is embedded [2-4]. The roots of these differences are generally to be found in a complex evolution shaped by ecological, cultural, and economic elements.


The origins of the Ladino peasantry

After the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, two social groups made up the nascent Guatemalan society: the Europeans and their descendants, the so-called Creoles, who formed the dominant, landowning group; and the indigenous Indios, whose labour was exploited by the former. With time, however, a new social group developed, composed of the descendants of unions between Indios and Creoles. These Mestizos, as they were initially called, rapidly expanded to the point of becoming the second most important demographic group after the Indios by the end of the seventeenth century [5]. Although the Mestizos joined the Indios as part of the dominated class, they occupied a distinctive role in the development of Guatemala: whereas Indios had recognized communal rights to land, Mestizos could only obtain usufruct rights in exchange for their labour on the lands of haciendas.

Members of the Mestizo group, later called ladinos de rancherías, were found mainly in regions of low Indian population density where they replaced Indios as agricultural workers under the regime of forced labour. For centuries, this basic social structure remained unchanged. It was not until the revolution of 1944 that the forced labour laws were abolished and peasants gained the right to own land. Further attempts at transforming the agrarian picture were frustrated by a coup d'état in 1955, which returned the landed oligarchy to power. Since then, the agrarian code has remained unchanged.

The eastern region (Oriente) of Guatemala and the study communities can be read as a microcosm of this agrarian history: with the depopulation left by the Spanish conquest, the Oriente became a predominantly Ladino area. Apart from a few military outposts, the primitive settlements were rancherías, where Ladinos would be granted a piece of land on the condition that they fulfil their duties to the owner of the estate. In the four villages studied by INCAP' the first official delimitations of peasants' parcels in Espíritu Santo, Santo Domingo, and Conacaste were made between 1932 and 1935 and in San Juan a few years later. Property titles were not issued before the revolution: San Juan, Conacaste, and Espíritu Santo received them in 1946, followed by Santo Domingo in 1956. Thus, from the perspective of Guatemala's general history, the four study communities followed parallel lines. A closer reading of local rural histories reveals that the roots of future differences between the villages were already present, as the better agricultural capacity of the lower Motagua valley region, where Espíritu Santo is located, permitted the development of a plantation economy, whereas the less favourable mountain area, where the other villages are, developed by and large along the lines of a hacienda economy. The social and economic differences documented in the rest of this article are based on this initial distinction.


Physical description of the study area

All four of the communities are located in the department of El Progreso, in east central Guatemala (see FIG. 1. Department of El Progreso, Guatemala (Study villages: SD, Santo Domingo; CO, Conacaste; SJ, San Juan; ES, Espíritu Santo)). This department can be divided into two main ecological areas. The first, with an elevation ranging from 100 to 600 m, covers the lowlands located on both sides of the Motagua River, running the length of the department from east to west. The second region, ranging from 600 to 1,200 m, occupies most of the department and flanks the Motagua valley on both sides. San Juan, Conacaste, and Santo Domingo are located in the mountain area, and Espíritu Santo is in the lowlands, bordering the Motagua River.

There are important ecological differences between the two regions. As shown in figure 2 (See FIG. 2. Mean monthly temperatures and rainfall, by region (Source: INSIVUMEH, Guatemala)), average monthly temperatures in the Motagua valley are consistently higher than in the mountain areas, always by approximately 5°C. Rainfall patterns are relatively similar between the regions, although the lowlands receive less rain than the mountains, making for a drier climate overall in the Motagua area. The soil in the lowlands is deep and has good agricultural potential, and much of it is suitable for mechanization. By contrast, the soil in the mountain areas is very shallow and has a generally deficient texture. Because of its steepness, the terrain is highly subject to erosion and unsuitable for mechanization.

These differences have played a role in the development of the productive structures of the two regions, which is reflected in the farming systems now found in the villages. The hotter but steadier climate of the lowlands, coupled with a relatively level landscape and good soil, attracted a level of capital investment and infrastructure build-up in the last century that is still unknown in most of the mountain region.

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