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6. Colonization in Guatemala

Government Institutions Involved in Colonization
Colonization Activities

The question of colonization takes on special importance in Guatemala, the second most densely populated country in Central America, with the largest absolute population. The population is highly concentrated in the central highlands; government sponsored redistribution of highlanders to the southern coastal area successfully relocated populations in the 1950s, and the south coast has experienced growth in the development of export crops. Nevertheless, the highlands remain extremely crowded and the lowland tropical areas in the northern part of the country have been increasingly considered as an outlet for this excess population.

The major colonization effort in the north has been the Franja Transversal del Norte (FTN). Government and international institutions have made major investments in the development of the FTN, although there has been an undercurrent of environmental concern regarding the establishment of agricultural activities in this delicate ecological zone.

The other major colonization area in northern Guatemala is Petén, Guatemala's largest department. Once the centre of Mayan civilization, Petén has been a marginal area in the modern economic development of Guatemala. Its humid climate and karstic terrain presented health and agricultural problems for which no technical solutions were known. Petén was put under the administration of FYDEP, Comisión pare el Fomento y Desarrollo Económico del Petén, a singualr institution in the scope of its authority and the breadth of its activity. FYDEP has total and exclusive administrative control of Petén, providing all normal government services, such as roads, agricultural technical assistance, agrarian reform, and colonization. Nevertheless, the position of FYDEP is controversial, and in September of 1984 there were strong indications that it might cease to exist or that the responsibility for certain aspects of Petén might revert to other government agencies.

Map 8. Guatemala: provinces and Franja Transversal del Norte land settlement area.

The focus of the land colonization investigation for Guatemala was the Bloque Chocón, the easternmost part of the FTN and the least populated sector. Chocón has been largely left aside in the process of development of the FTN; there has been a minimal presence of government institutions, including the agency for agrarian reform, especially when compared to the areas of Ixcán and Sebol, where reform activities have been most intensive. Nevertheless, there was an immediate interest in Chocón as a result of the formulation of a new plan for development of the area, called Desarrollo Rural Integrado - Izabál (DRI-Izabál, or simply DRI-I), which provided ready availability of information regarding the area.

Government Institutions Involved in Colonization

INTA- Land Reform and Colonization

In Guatemala, a decision has quite clearly been taken to subsitute colonization of new lands for land reform. It is widely recognized that land concentration is a major problem in Guatemalan agriculture and that it leads to underutilization of lands and underemployment of the rural population (BID 1977; World Bank 1978). However, effort has been concentrated on the incorporation of marginal lands into agricultural production to alleviate pressures for land reform.

In the 1940s and 1950s expropriated German farms were made available to farmers, both on the Pacific coast and in the highlands. By the 1980s, the considerable amount of land affected had long since been redistributed. On the Pacific coast, it has been observed that the reform colonies have now been transformed into fairly typical examples of Guatemalan agricultural land use, with non-owner farm management common (i.e. share-cropping, renting, etc.).

It is important to note that there is a potentially powerful agrarian reform law (Ley de Transformacion Agraria Decreto No. 1551; INTA 1981) enacted in 1962 and which contains provisions for addressing the problems of land concentration and underutilization. Unutilized lands can be legally taxed and/or expropriated. Nevertheless, these dispositions have not been carried out (World Bank 1978).

In the 1960s, a national priority was put on colonization of the humid tropical lands in the north of the country. A large project was proposed, called Sebol, which would have affected two sections of the future FTN, one at its western end (Ixcán) and the other in the centre, to the north of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Sebol). In the area of Ixcán, religious leaders had promoted a movement into new farm lands. A voluminous report was presented (Guatemala n.d.), apparently as a funding proposal, but the project seems to have been absorbed by the much larger and subsequent FTN plan.

The scope of INTA activities is constantly changing. INTA officials feel a need to be able to attend to a broad range of colonization needs to integrate the process and guarantee success. Within INTA there exist independent offices of mapping, education, statistics, etc. A 1977 international report (RID 1977) concluded that the process of colonization was most successful with a minimum of government support and recommended that activities be co-ordinated through local organizations, mentioning specifically four co-operatives: FENACOAC (credit), FECOAR, FEDECOCAGUA, and FEDECOAG (regional co-operatives work with commercial and administrative support). Apparently this recommendation was followed, because INTA officials complained in 1984 that progress in the area of Ixcán, at the western end of the FTN, had been unsatisfactory due to its being left to the local co-operatives. The control over activities in the area was by that time being returned to INTA. INTA was conceived as a broad, inclusive institution which either executes or provides for the execution of services which include the development of infrastructure, technical assistance, credit, and land titling (INTA 1984).

A major component of INTA activity is training farmers. When there was more emphasis on co-operatives, this training was focused on individual training for cooperative work (Villeda Sagatsume 1971). INTA training is now focused on preparing farmers to understand and use the agronomic recommendations made through INTA'S agrological assessment of farms.

A contrasting view of INTA'S role as co-ordinator comes from recent development plans (CRN 1984) and from the structure of the new Comités Inter-Institucionales de Desarrollo (CID). In these alternative views, either another institution (the National Reconstruction Committee) or a committee of government institutions co-ordinates the activities of the independent government agencies, including INTA.

INAFOR- National Forestry Institute

As the national forestry institution, logically INAFOR should have an important role in the process of colonization. This is not the case. INAFOR has served principally as an advisor on forestry aspects of lands to be colonized, but its recommendations do not seem to carry much weight.

In the execution of planning programme 520-T-026 (a USAID-funded project), INAFOR did a forest inventory of the FTN area in 1979 (lNAFOR 1980). At the time of the inventory, there were 500 families in the area of 467 km² that had arrived in the previous three years. The inventory discovered an alarming rate of deforestation in the area and a large percentage of land highly susceptible to erosion. In conclusion, it was recommended that some 30 per cent of the area was inappropriate for agriculture and should be left in forest reserve. In spite of this recommendation, less than 10 per cent was left as reserve in the final plan, and this only because it was too swampy to clear.

Similarly, in the recent integrated rural development project for Izabál (DRI-I), less than 2 per cent of the budget is for forestry, despite the fact that 75 per cent of all the land in the project area is classified as usable only for forestry. The participation of INAFOR in the project is said to be principally for co-ordination of charcoal production, with no mention made of the Río Dulce National Park and Wildlife Reserve, which is partly inside the Chocón area. In conversations with DRI planners, an interest was expressed in a major forestry input to the project, but this interest was not reflected in the project document.

Possibly the clearest indicator of INAFOR'S status is the existence of FYDEP. FYDEP was created to manage the development of Petén in all its aspects, and INAFOR is not included in its activities, even though Petén is one of the major remaining forest areas in the region.

INAFOR has suffered from a lack of political respect. It is seen as a non-productive body whose principal function is to do forest inventories and control the exploitation of forest areas. INAFOR'S ecology office also carries out land use analyses, but they are not used by other agencies, since many have their own offices for analysing land use. In a more positive vein, a new administration in INAFOR promises to make the institution more dynamic and to support a more aggressive policy of conservation and forest management. In 1984 INAFOR was taking an active part in the evaluation of the DRT-I plan and in developments in Petén.


ICTA, DIGESA, and DIGESEPE are the agricultural research and extension institutions for Guatemalan public sector agriculture. ICTA undertakes technology development and testing, while DIGESA and DIGESEPE are in charge of extension in agriculture and animal production respectively. These agencies do not have a specific mandate to work in colonization areas, and do so at the request of other institutions. They see their role as that of responding to requests by other government institutions for technical assistance and do not have a comprehensive technical plan which directs them to work in all areas of the country.

Of the three, DIGESA seems to be the institution most involved in the development of colonization areas. It manages a nursery at Los Brillantes on the Pacific slopes and one at Playa Grande (Ixcán) in the FTN. These two nurseries are reported to be the sources of technical information for the development of new products by other institutions (specifically, DRT-I), but information was not readily available as to the status of the work in these centres.

Colonization Activities

The Franja Transversal del Norte

The FTN is the most recently established agricultural region of Guatemala, formed by the division of the country's region II into two approximately equal sized regions, 11 and Vlll (table 33). After Petén (region 111), region VIII has the lowest population density of the country, with an area of 8,809 km² and a population of 172,704.

Table 33. General data for agricultural regions of Guatemala

Region Extension
% Nat'l


Urban Rural Indigenous Non-indig. Total
I 14,960 13.70 268,860 1,268,653 1,216,173 321,340 1,537,513 103.00
II 10,368 9.50 50,760 251,380 261,049 41,091 302,140 29.00
III 35,854 32.90 34,098 98,143 35,176 97,065 132,241 3.40
IV 12,921 11.90 248,276 824,828 - - 1,073,104 83.00
V 9,057 8.30 1,039,796 770,494 458,003 1,352,287 1,810,290 198.00
VI 8,237 7.70 133,052 454,810 72,795 455,670 - 71.40
VII 9,268 8.50 99,384 337,358 76,867 359,875 436,742 47.12
VIII 8,809 8.10 21,070 151,634 149,216 23,488 172,704 17.27
Total 109,474 100.60 1,895,296 4,157,300 2,584,772 2,966,309 - 69.11

Source: DIGESA table, DIGESA files, Guatemala City.

Table 34. Settlement profile of six communities in the FTN

Community No. of families Manzanas
Caxlampon 108 5,344
Siguanja 64 2,883
Sechaac de Tulia 94 2,750
Kaquitul 47 2,618
Poza del Danto 93 1,234
Quebrada Seca 50 906
Total 456 15,735

Source: USPADA 1982.

Agriculture in the FTN. Climatically, the FTN is composed mainly of very humid subtropical forest, with a section of very humid tropical forest at its eastern extreme. Rainfall ranges from 2,000 mm to more than 4,000 mm annually. A major problem of the area is the soil, which overlays limestone and is prone to erosion on steep slopes. Topographically, the FTN encompasses the north-eastern foothills of the central highlands and the southern end of the lowlands of Petén; most of the area is lower than 300 m.

Several preparatory studies were carried out in the FTN to create a data base for the colonization process. One of these was an AID financed investigation, 520-T-026, mentioned above, which was a reconnaissance of the western end of the FTN near the Mexico-Guatemala border (INAFOR 1980).

IICA-OAS undertook a much broader investigation, in which a series of community studies were carried out and an outline of a general strategy for colonization was prepared (IICA-OEA 1979; Reiche and Gallegos 1980). The communities chosen as case-studies were Caxlampon; Siguanja; Sechaac de Tulia; Kaquitul; Poza del Danto; and Quebrada Seca. They are fairly small communities, with a combined total of 456 resident families on 15,735 ha (see table 34).

They are traditional communities economically, as seen by the crops grown. Over 90 per cent of all the land sown is used for corn (table 35). Permanent crops are well diversified, but their combined area is equivalent to only 2.2 per cent of the area for maize production (table 36).

Despite the status of the area as one of agricultural expansion, a large amount of land was concentrated in fairly few hands. Less than 5 per cent of the population owned more than 30 per cent of all land. The process of land allocation in the FTN seems to have served to reward government supporters with land grants in underpopulated regions. Several notable clusters of small farms in peasant "parcelizations" have been established, one around Playa Grande in the western extreme of the FTN and two more in the central area near Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Nevertheless, the majority of the FTN has been incorporated into large farms, many of which are privately owned (table 37). The landholding pattern is slightly obscured by the practice of not assigning parcels to farmers but instead assigning a cooperative farm to a group of farmers, within which each farmer establishes his own work area. Whether due to a lack of political will or merely to bureaucratic shortcomings, the FTN programme has not resolved the problems of land shortage that many Guatemalan farmers face.

Table 35. Area (in mz) and production (in quintals) of annual crops by community in the FTN

Crop No. of producers







Q. Seca

Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod. Area Prod.
Corn 478 1878.0 27,363 307.5 4,194 232.0 2,597 379.1 4,762 440.7 7,285 176.4 2,073 342.3 6,452
Beans 340 108.1 890 38.3 347 13.5 49 15.5 156 14.3 140 8.0 25 18.5 173
Cassava 34 4.0 181 0.5 43 1.9 58 0.4 18 0.6 16 0.5 43 0.1 3
Malanga 29 2.3 82 0.3 9 0.7 17 0.5 31 0.6 12 0.1 10 0.1 3
Chilis 96 11.3 56 2.8 12 3.0 15 1.8 11 1.4 7 1.7 8 0.6 3
Rice 9 4.2 52 0.4 5 1.9 6 1.8 40 0.1 1 0 0 0 0
Peanuts 4 0.3 4 0.2 2 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sweet potatoes 1 0.1 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 3 0 0
Squash 1 2.0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2.0 2
Cilantroa 2 0.2 100 0 0 0.1 75 0 0 0.1 25 0 0 0 0

Source: USPADA 1982. a In bundles.

Table 36. Perennial crop production in six FTN communities

Crop No. of producers


All communities




Pozo del Danto


Quebrada Seca

Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod. Areaa Prod.
Sugar-cane 28 quintal 3.4 375 1.6 109 0.5 68 0.3 71 0.2 32 0.1 10 0.7 85
Malanga 36 quintal 4.5 200 0 0 2.4 117 0.3 13 0.6 19 0 0 1.2 51
Coffee 177 quintal 10.9 68 2.0 11 0.8 2 1.5 10 3.7 32 0.6 1 2.3 12
Cassava 15 quintal 0.8 26 0 0 0.3 2 0.1 2 0.4 22 0 0 0 0
Achiote 18 quintal 1.4 19 0.1 4 0.6 8 0.2 1 0.1 2 0.1 1 0.3 3
Chilis 19 quintal 1.7 15 0 0 0.7 6 0.5 4 0.3 2 0.1 1 0.1 2
Cardamom 68 quintal 1.7 12 0.1 1 0 0 0.9 6 0.4 3 0 0 0.3 2
Cacao 31 quintal 0.7 3 0.3 1 0.2 1 0 0 0.2 1 0 0 0 0
Plantain 61 raceme 4.7 1,823 0.9 484 0.8 310 0.7 248 0.9 435 0.2 100 1.2 246
Banana 64 raceme 4.9 1,190 0.1 80 0.3 150 1.0 251 2.3 435 0.3 65 0.9 209
Pineapple 94 hundreds 5.7 104 0.6 12 1.1 29 1.4 25 0.8 11 0.9 13 0.9 14
Oranges 10 hundreds 0.5 40 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.4 38
Lemons 1 hundreds 0.1 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 16 0 0 0 0
Limes 1 hundreds 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0
Avocados 1 hundreds 0.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.1 2 0 0 0 0

Source: USPADA 1982. a In manzanas.

Table 37. Land tenure by farm size for six FTN communities

Farm size (mz)






P. del Danto

Q. Seca

# Area # Area # Area # Area # Area # Area # Area
>1 463 116 126 23 50 11 79 18 110 50 33 6 65 8
1-2 31 34 6 8 5 5 4 4 1 1 3 3 12 13
2-5 218 581 92 237 55 149 12 30 4 9 31 91 24 65
5-10 54 349 18 121 8 50 4 24 1 8 17 107 6 39
10-25 122 1,987 10 132 5 69 1 22 91 1,546 3 34 12 184
25-50 112 3,486 0 0 0 0 78 2,495 9 284 2 60 23 647
< 50 50 3,192 23 1,472 21 1,336 0 0 0 0 6 384 0 0
Total 1,050 9,745 275 1,993 144 1,620 178 2,593 216 1,898 95 685 142 956

Source: USPADA 1982.

Since the FTN is still an area of low population density, there is no shortage of land for farming. An ICTA sondeo determined that the limiting factors in the area were shortages of captial and labour (Ruano 1981). A shortage of capital is not uncommon in developing countries, but the situation of a labour shortage is less common. Due to a combination of bad roads and poor prices, there is little commercial production of grains and little use of day labourers; farmers must rely on a traditional labour exchange network to cultivate their corn and reciprocate by participating in neighbours' work parties. The national marketing support institution (INDECA) works in the area, but is reported to be too bureaucratic to be of use to the farmers, who most commonly sell to middlemen. As a result of the above, farmers are not motivated to intensify cropping patterns and tend to try to replace labour and capital with land. Letting land lay fallow for several years saves both labour and capital, because of the elimination of grasses from the underbrush of the secondary forest and the natural regeneration of soil fertility. Farmers try to maintain a reserve of secondary forest, because it is much easier to clear than primary forest, and rotate crops among their secondary forest plots (Carter 1969).

Cattle and cardamom are the area's main commercial products. Cattle production is a preferred activity for its low labour demand, while cardamom has commanded a good price (in recent years prices have dropped, but it is not clear if that will be permanent). There is some use of paid labour in the production of cattle and cardamom, because of their commercial value.

Agriculture in the FTN has its own special production problems. One problem is the low soil fertility; corn is commonly planted at a spacing of 1.6 m between seedlings, since closer spacings significantly reduce grain yield. Even with this measure, land can be used only a few years before it must be left fallow. Weeds are also a major problem for FTN farmers. The high rainfall promotes vigorous weed growth, and the lack of available labour or capital for the purchase of herbicides makes weed control a major limitation in land use (Carter 1969 gives a detailed description of indigenous farming practices in the FTN.


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