Register Now!

Search Skwirk

Contributing factors to Guatemala's level of development

Unit Home Topic Home 6 Pictures 1 Animations 0 Videos Chapter Summary 0 Activities
0 Exams


There are many historical, political, economic, social and environmental factors which contribute to a country's level of development. This chapter applies the factors discussed in the previous chapter to a specific developing country: Guatemala. The example of this developing country of 12 million people in Central America illustrates how a country's level of development is almost always influenced by a combination of factors. In most cases, it is difficult to separate these contributing factors from one another, as they are strongly interrelated.

Guatemala - geographical context

Guatemala is a small country located in Central America. It is one of the countries that form a region of the world known as Latin America (refer to Chapter three). The capital city of Guatemala is Guatemala City.

See image one

Overview of Guatemalan history

For centuries, Guatemala was part of Spain's large colonial empire in the Americas. It was conquered by the Spanish during the 16th century and was considered a part of New Spain until it gained independence in 1821. During colonial times, New Spain covered most of Central America and the Caribbean, all of present-day Mexico, and a large part of south-west U.S.A.

For about twenty years after independence, Guatemala (along with El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica) was part of the United Provinces of Central America. Guatemala's current borders were only established in 1840, after the United Provinces of Central America split up into the smaller countries that occupy this territory today.

Guatemala experienced a devastating civil war during the second half of the 20th century which lasted almost four decades. It was triggered by a military coup in 1956, which was led by a group of Guatemalans but backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA. Peace was declared in 1996; however, since then the political, social and economic climate of the country has still been unsteady. Guatemala is a now presidential democracy and Oscar Berger was elected president in 2003.

See image two

Overview of the Guatemalan population and society

Guatemala has a population of approximately 12 million people and Guatemala City has the highest population of any capital city in Central America. As Guatemala was a part of Spain's former colonial empire, the official language of Guatemala is now Spanish.

The indigenous peoples of Guatemala are known as the Mayans. The ratio of indigenous people (including people of indigenous descent) to non-indigenous people is approximately 3:2. There are over twenty different Mayan languages still spoken in Guatemala today.

See image three

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of poverty in Central America and is one of the least developed countries in Latin America. It has been estimated that at least 50 percent of Guatemala's population (or about six million people) lives in absolute poverty. In the 2006 United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) annual report into human development, Guatemala recorded a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.673. Based on this figure, it was ranked number 118 out of the 177 UN member countries that were assessed. For the purpose of comparison, Australia was ranked number three and recorded an HDI of 0.957.

Overview of Guatemalan land and wealth distribution

Wealth is distributed unevenly within Guatemala and it is the indigenous population which suffers the most from this inequity. The majority of the Guatemalan population, including the poorest contingent, live in rural areas and work in the agricultural industry.

Although Guatemala has the highest rural population of any Central American country, infrastructure outside of major urban centres is very poor. Access to utilities (such as water and electricity) and public services (such as healthcare and educational institutions) is mostly inadequate and extremely expensive.

See image four

During Guatemala's period of colonisation, many indigenous peoples in rural areas were forced to work for Spanish colonists, usually for very little or no pay. Some indigenous people were also forced to move into the mountains, where the land is much less arable. Others migrated to find work on Spanish sugar and banana plantations near the coast.

Even after Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821, rich descendents of the Spanish colonists (known as Ladinos) retained their possession of the country's most arable land. This unfair and unequal system of land ownership, along with the dominance of the Ladinos lasted for over 130 years after the end of colonialism. It partly established the large gap between rich and poor in Guatemala, which still exists today.

Factors contributing to Guatemala's level of development


Many of the development challenges which Guatemala faces today stem from its status as a former colony. The legacy of this is a historical factor which has contributed to Guatemala's level of development. When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala in the 16th century, they utilised the richest agricultural land and enslaved many indigenous peoples to grow sugar and coffee crops, which were then exported back to Europe. Other products that the Spanish took from Guatemala included dyes and timber.

See image five

Land ownership and exploitation

The Spanish colonists forced many indigenous peoples in rural areas to work for them, usually for very little or no pay. Some indigenous people were forced to move into the mountainous highlands, where the land was much less productive. Others migrated to find work on Spanish banana plantations near the coast. Even after Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Ladinos retained their possession of the country's most arable land.

Even after Guatemala's period of Spanish colonisation, wealthy foreign companies - namely the large U.S.-based United Fruit Company - bought control of large areas of rural Guatemala. They established plantations for growing export commodities such as sugar, coffee and bananas. The profits these plantations made, however, were not directed back to the Guatemalan people. The legacy of this system of land ownership and the exploitation of Guatemala's natural resources for foreign gain are historical and economic factors which have contributed to Guatemala's level of development.

Civil war and political instability

In 1952, after over a century of foreign exploitation, the Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz introduced a set of land reforms. These reforms saw large amounts of land expropriated (taken away) from the U.S. companies and wealthy Ladino land-owners.

Two years later, however, a military coup (rebellion) was staged in retaliation to the land reforms. The coup was led by a small group of wealthy Guatemalans and supported the USA and was eventually successful in overthrowing President Arbuez. The coup caused much tension in Guatemala and resulted in a civil war which lasted for almost four decades.

During this civil war, powerful military groups linked to the Guatemalan government committed atrocious human rights violations, which included the killing of many peace activists and journalists. Many indigenous villages were also destroyed during violent raids and it has been estimated that around one million people were internally displaced within Guatemala.

The legacies of the 1954 military coup and the on-going political and social instability caused by the civil war are historical and political factors which have adversely affected Guatemala's level of development.

Poverty and crime

Poverty is widespread in Guatemala, particularly amongst the indigenous population. Life expectancy is almost 15 years lower than that in Australia and only 70 percent of the Guatemalan population is literate. The majority of people in rural areas do not have a reliable or steady source of clean drinking water and diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis have almost reached epidemic status.

Many rural areas of Guatemala are poorly serviced and have little infrastructure. Even basic utilities such as electricity and water are either inadequate or extremely expensive, which means they are difficult for most to access. Quality of life, low levels of education, poor health standards and a shortage of infrastructure are social factors which are contributing to Guatemala's level of development. They are, however, closely linked to the historical, political and economic factors discussed above.

Crime is another social factor which has hindered development in Guatemala. Much of this crime can be linked to a breakdown in social cohesion resulting from poverty and the inability of the government to effectively regulate law and order.

Poor environmental management and natural disasters

Like many countries of Central America, Guatemala has a high level of volcanic activity and is naturally prone to earthquakes. Poor land management practices of the past (including extensive land clearing for agriculture) have also meant that much of the land in rural Guatemala suffers from erosion. Guatemala's naturally unstable landscape and human-induced land degradation problems have meant that flooding caused by torrential rains and hurricanes often led to mudslides.

In October 2005 Guatemala was hit by tropical Hurricane Stan, which devastated large areas of southern Mexico and Central America. Along with El Salvador, Guatemala was the country worst hit by the hurricane. It has been estimated that at least 600 people died in Guatemala as a direct result of the floods and mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan, and that tens of thousands of people were displaced because their homes were either damaged or destroyed completely. In addition to direct deaths caused by Hurricane Stan, floodwaters contaminated with dead bodies began to affect drinking water supplies. These contaminated waterways therefore became breeding grounds for the spread of disease.

See image six

The flooding also damaged numerous coffee and fruit plantations, which were near harvest. This resulted in a significant blow to the economy and many people lost their jobs. Food shortages in affected areas also led to famine. The devastation caused by Hurricane Stan is an example of how environmental factors can contribute to a country's level of development.



No thanks. Remind me again later.