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Description of the communities



San Miguel de Conacaste is located amid rolling hills on a plateau delimited by the Motagua valley on the north and the Rio Plátanos on the south. The area is hot and dry, but the agricultural potential in Conacaste is better than in the surrounding mountain area, and the smoother topography offers possibilities for mechanization. Water was long a limiting factor, but this was overcome in the early 1980s with the inauguration of a mini-irrigation system.

The village stands on the site of the former estate of San Miguel de Conacaste. After some boundary disputes with the nearby town of Sanarate, the estate was nationalized in 1927 and its lands attached to Sanarate's municipal lands. Local peasants could keep working the plots they had been allotted by the former estate owner, but formal titles were not issued until 1946. Of the four villages, Conacaste had the most unequal distribution of land in 1974 (table 1). The situation had somewhat improved in that regard by 1987, although the average plot of land controlled by a family had decreased by more than half in the meantime. The presence of a cooperative in the village since 1978 may explain these changes in land access (see below). Access to land is mostly through ownership: in 1987 more than 75% of the land was under individual ownership, the remaining 25% being either rented by the family or lent to it without cost (see FIG. 3. Forms of land tenure, by village, 1974 (n = 780) and 1988 (n = 490)). The level of ownership represents an increase from 1974, when approximately 65% of the plots were owned by those who worked them; this change has occurred mainly at the expense of land borrowed and reflects the slow dissolution of solidarity networks in the community, especially those based on family relationships, since plots lent without cost traditionally came from the extended family.

TABLE 1. Mean land areas per family in the four villages, 1974 and 1987

  1974 1987
N Area N Area
Mean SD Mean SD
Santo Domingo 210 80.2 143.5 98 26.8 41.2
Conacaste 230 75.3 151.6 143 34.5 49.8
Espíritu Santo 200 30.1 44.6 129 8.6 12.1
San Juan 134 68.6 90.8 120 40.1 56.4

Source: INCAP R10 data sets, 1974 and 1987.
Areas in
cuerdas, a flexible unit of land measure corresponding to the area one man can work in one day on a typical agricultural task (such as clearing or ploughing) One cuerda is approximately 525 m˛.

Because topography and soil conditions are better in Conacaste than in the surrounding mountain areas, the villagers involvement in commercial agriculture has traditionally been greater than in the neighbouring communities of San Juan and Santo Domingo. For instance, tomatoes, cucumbers, tobacco, and chiles were already grown for sale by a number of farmers in 1969 [6]. Until the 1980s, however, the lack of water kept this incipient commercial production from becoming a major income-earning strategy. The 1976 earthquake proved to be a decisive turning point in this regard. As in many other areas of the country, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participated in the reconstruction efforts that followed this national catastrophe. A direct result of this help was the creation of the San Miguel de Conacaste Cooperative in 1978. Shortly after its inception, the cooperative requested a loan from the Inter-American Bank for Development to finance the construction of an irrigation system. Money was granted in 1981 and the mini-irrigation system went into operation in 1983.

With the inauguration of the irrigation system, horticulture (mainly tomatoes and cucumbers) became a major source of revenue for the community. Through the cooperative, which served as marketing intermediary for the local farmers, Conacaste became dynamically involved in the national market structure within only a few years because of its horticultural production, and the importance of commercial agriculture as an income category rose rapidly. Besides commercial agriculture, subsistence cropping is still practised by most family farms. In both 1974 and 1987 Conacaste was the largest producer of maize and beans of the four communities. (The terms subsistence crops and basic grains are used interchangeably in this paper, as virtually all basic grains harvested are used for own consumption.)

TABLE 2. Mean household income in real terms (1975 quetzales)

  1974 1987 Ratio 1987:1974
N Income N Income
Mean SD Mean SD
Santo Domingo 207 463 560 97 831 804 1.8
Conacaste 224 495 539 139 734 996 1.5
Espíritu Santo 177 291 396 126 634 519 2.2
San Juan 124 340 341 109 548 669 1.6

Source: INCAP R10 data sets, 1974 and 1987.
Incomes in quetzales adjusted by the ratios of the 1974 and 1987 consumer price indexes to that of 1975, the base year in consumer price index tables from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística. In 1975, Q 1 = US$1.
a. Incomes include an imputed value for subsistence production computed by calculating the amount of product from own production used for family consumption and multiplying it by the unit price of that product for that year.


Changes in the productive orientation of the community, however, have not brought meaningful improvements in the average income of the majority of families: of the four study communities, the people of Conacaste saw the least increases in overall income between 1974 and 1987 (table 2). This poor performance must be attributed to an increasing concentration of income (in 1987 average family income showed the highest standard deviation of the four communities) and to the high operation costs of commercial farming. Thus the insertion of Conacaste within the national and international market structure has increased capital flow in the community, but little of it stays there and it goes increasingly to the same families. The modernization of agriculture has fostered a consolidation of the family farm, however, as agriculture remained the most important source of income in the village during the study period (table 3).

TABLE 3. Principal sources of family income (percentages of families)

  Santo Domingo Conacaste Espíritu Santo San Juan
1974 1987 1974 1987 1974 1987 1974 1987
Home-based activity 13.9 3.2 7.7 4.4 30.0 24.6 25.4 13.9
Subsistence agriculture 33.8 11.6 3.8 22.8 9.4 5.6 28.0 21.8
Commerical agriculture 4.5 2.1 15.8 14.0 13.5 7.1 5.1 4.0
Agricultural wage work 20.4 14.7 24.0 27.9 39.4 31.0 23.7 23.8
Non-agricultural wage work 24.9 58.9 19.9 26.5 4.7 18.3 14.4 30.7
Animal production 2.5 0 1.8 0 2.9 1.6 3.4 1.0
Transfers/credits 0 9.5 0 4.4 0 11.9 0 5.0

Source: INCAP R10 data sets, 1974 and 1987.


Another important spin-off of the modernization of Conacaste's agriculture has been the stabilization of seasonal fluctuations in resource flows. After the introduction of the irrigation system and of short-cycle crops, local demand for labour is now more sustained: whereas 29.4% of all wage employment in 1974 consisted of seasonal agricultural jobs on the coast, the proportion was down to 7.1% in 1987 after sharp increases in local labour demand. This also suggests that income should now accrue to households (both to independent producers and agricultural wage labourers) in a smoother and more regular fashion.

Over time, non-agricultural wage work has also become an important source of income. In 1974 non-agricultural wages constituted the main source of income for 19.9% of the sample. By 1987 this proportion was up to 26.5% (see FIG. 4. Mean percentage contribution of different activities to total household income. by village, 1974 (n = 780) and 1988 (n = 490)). Most such jobs were offered at the nearby Novela cement factory or in Guatemala City, consisting generally of unskilled occupations.

The sex division of labour in income-earning activities remains pronounced in Conacaste. Women are notably absent from agricultural operations, the only exception being the commercialization of fruit products and of small animals, both traditional female domains. This persistent absence of women from the agricultural process is surprising, especially given the scale of the community's involvement in nontraditional agriculture. Studies in other contexts have documented how shifts to commercial agriculture have transformed traditional sex divisions and augmented women's involvement in the production process, especially in the labour-intensive tasks of horticultural production [7]. The fact that commercial production in Conacaste remains pre-eminently a family enterprise may favour maintaining patriarchal forms of economic organization and sex divisions of labour. Purely commercial enterprises operating on the basis of hired labour either do not distinguish by sex or, more frequently, use it to genderize particular phases of production.

Population and demographics

Throughout the period under consideration, Conacaste remained the most populous of the study communities, going from 854 inhabitants in 1969 to 1,668 in 1987 (table 4). It came third, after Santo Domingo and San Juan, for the total number of families migrating permanently between 1974 and 1987 (table 5). This relatively small proportion of final migrants must be related to the availability of agricultural wage employment within the community itself and of nonagricultural jobs at the Novela cement factory. One aspect that drew attention to Conacaste in the past was its high infant mortality rate, particularly in the period preceding the INCAP intervention [8]. This poor status of children's health could have been a reflection of the absence of infrastructure and services in the community (at least until the beginning of the INCAP study, which provided basic health services to Conacaste, as it did in the three other study villages) and perhaps of the generally low level of education of mothers (table 6). Those indicators improved in later years, with 1987 values similar to those in the other communities.

TABLE 4. Village populations, 1967-1987

  1967 1975 1987 Growth ratea
Santo Domingo 811 1,202 1,629 3.55
Conacaste 854 1,242 1,668 3.40
Espíritu Santo 556 915 1,106 3.50
San Juan 469 759 1,159 4.63

Figures include temporary migrants present in the village at the time of the census.
a. Average annual growth rate (percentage), 1967-1987.

TABLE 5. Permanent migration from the villages, 19741990

  No. of families % migration
Surveyed 1974 Migrated 1990a
Santo Domingo 98 24 24.5
Conacaste 143 19 13.3
Espíritu Santo 129 11 8.5
San Juan 120 20 16.6

Source: INCAP R10 data sets, 1974 and 1987, with additional data collected 1990.
a. Families surveyed in 1974 who had migrated permanently by 1990.

TABLE 6. Parents with some literacy

  1967 1977 1987
No % No % No %
Santo Domingo  
mothers 161 40.6 207 51.2 327 63.3
fathers 140 47.1 176 56.0 282 64.9
mothers 161 24.8 204 37.3 324 57.4
fathers 154 37.9 197 48.7 306 65.4
Espíritu Santo  
mothers 125 25.6 166 34.9 232 58.1
fathers 127 59.8 132 66.7 188 75.5
San Juan  
mothers 86 29.1 126 38.9 212 63.2
fathers 93 37.6 115 44.3 198 61.1

Source: INCAP censuses, 1967, 1977, and 1987.
The literacy scale in 1967 was dichotomous (0 = not literate, 1 = literate). whereas the scales in 1977 and 1987 had three categories (0 = not literate, 1 = some literacy, 2 = literate). To make them comparable, the 1977 and 1987 scales were dichotomized by collapsing categories 1 and 2 into a single "literate'' category.

Infrastructure and services

Since the inauguration of the cooperative, transportation to and from Conacaste has been adequate, a good dirt road linking the community to the highway six kilometres away which runs between Guatemala City and the Atlantic. The central market of La Terminal in Guatemala City can now be reached at any time of the year within less than two hours. This is in contrast to the earlier period, when commuting in and out of the community was often difficult, if not impossible, due to the flooding of a portion of the road during the rainy season.

In 1972 the water situation in Conacaste was most difficult [6]. The only source of water at that time was a well located one kilometre away from the village; no system existed to bring the water to the village, and the supply was irregular, especially during the dry season. This has changed dramatically since. In 1981 with the help of various NGOs a new well was drilled and equipped with a motor pump (table 7). Pipes were installed, and in 1982 most families located near the centre had water in their homes. The supply is now fairly regular, with a few interruptions in the period immediately preceding the rains (between March and May).

TABLE 7. Chronology of infrastructure development

  Santo Domingo Conacaste Espíritu Santo San Juan
School built 1960 1960 1969 1973
First 4 grades offered 1979 1968 1972 1976
First 6 graces offered 1980 1980 1977 1980
Health clinic built 1986 1979 1972 1979
Water installed in village 1964 1981 1978 1969
Water installed in homes never 1982 1978 1970
Electricity installed 1985 1980 1974 1973

Source: Interviews with key informants.


Basic education (first and second grades) has been provided in Conacaste since the 1940s. By 1968 the school offered four grades on a regular basis. At that time! however, the building was in very poor condition, had no water, bathrooms, or electricity, and lacked space, equipment, and personnel. The dismal state of the education infrastructure may be part of the reason Conacaste in the past had the lowest enrolment, the highest drop-out rate, and the highest illiteracy rate of the four villages. Here again, things have improved. In the aftermath of the earthquake, USAID and PLAN International provided materials for the construction of a new building, and since 1980 the school has had six classrooms, offered the six primary grades, and been staffed by at least four teachers. On an education scale devised by this author [9], Conacaste ranked second in 1987 among the four study communities.


Conacaste has changed in a rather spectacular way since the beginning of the INCAP longitudinal study. Initially a subsistence-oriented community, it has since become an important producer of horticultural products for the national and international markets. Perhaps because of the mediation of the cooperative, the distribution of land has become less skewed with time, and family farms have consolidated. On the other hand, income became more concentrated between 1974 and 1988, accompanied by sluggish growth of total family incomes, which increased less in this than in any of the other study villages. Conacaste has received much external aid in its recent history, allowing for numerous improvements of its infrastructure. As a result, basic indicators of health and development have improved substantially from their dismal level in 1969, so that the community now compares favourably with the other study villages.

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