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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Guatemala’s Western Highlands: Addressing Gendered Vulnerability to Climate Change

By Jessie Pinchoff & Angel del Valle



Women from Aldea Campur, in Alta Verapaz, make, market and package their own shampoo, courtesy of Flickr user UN Women.


The Population Institute’s recent report, Invisible Threads: Addressing the root causes of migration from Guatemala by investing in women and girls, has brought attention to the numerous factors that drive migration in Guatemala. One of the key factors addressed in the report is climate change, which is linked closely to issues concerning land in that country. To this day, multiple generations of indigenous women endure the effects of land displacement and inequities in access to land—as well as related social and economic pressures. In concert with other political, social, and economic problems, this particular challenge has resulted in large outflows of migrants from the region.


Climate change also disproportionately affects rural farmers in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. This region of the country is rugged and picturesque, drawing visitors from around the world to enjoy its scenic landscapes. The Western Highlands also serve as an important agricultural center, producing coffee, maize, bananas, and myriad other crops. However, this landscape is beset by many challenges. Most prominent among them is the growing effects of climate change on agricultural livelihoods, which has resulted in food insecurity, persistently high levels of poverty, and reinforcement of harmful gender norms. The release of Invisible Threads offers a unique opportunity to examine this particular region in light of the issues raised in the report.


Risks to Livelihoods are Significant and Gendered

Guatemala faces a long list of challenges that make it difficult for people—particularly women and girls—to develop sustainable livelihoods in the face of climate change.

First, due to its lack of adaptive capacity and susceptibility to hurricanes and other extreme weather events, Guatemala faces some of the most severe climate risks of any country in the Americas. Second, Guatemala has not recovered from the devastating consequences of internal armed conflict between 1960 and 1996. This pervasive violence paved the way for significant governance challenges and have resulted in relatively low rates of economic growth, limited infrastructure, and high levels of corruption. Guatemala’s fraught history has also led to a third challenge: highly unequal access to land. The country’s large landowners are expanding palm oil and sugar plantations, resulting in the displacement of longtime residents who have leased land, and leaving them with few livelihood alternatives other than migration. Finally, despite improvements in recent years access to quality healthcare and education is poor, and Guatemalans suffer vast inequalities linked to ethnicity, gender, income and geography.


On top of these significant challenges, women and girls face additional hardships. Access to sexual and reproductive health services is limited in the Western Highlands, resulting in high rates of pregnancy among adolescent girls, especially those from indigenous backgrounds. Additionally, more than 1 in 4 women in Guatemala report having experienced an act of physical, emotional, or sexual violence from a spouse or partner. Opportunities for employment are known to be limited for women and girls in the Western Highlands, with formal employment opportunities largely confined to jobs in agriculture or tourism that are disproportionately held by men.


This state of affairs has left women extraordinarily vulnerable in fundamental ways. In a country where 48 percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, women often lack the capital needed to purchase assets needed for a secure future. Only 34 percent of adult indigenous women in Guatemala own a home, and only 18 percent of them own land. Without livelihood ownership, women become dependent on others for their well-being. For instance, there is evidence that while women generally manage the household food economy, men make most of the key decisions about cash crops.


Unsustainable Dynamics Harm Vulnerable Populations

Various analyses have shown that climate change places increasing stress on livelihoods throughout the population in Guatemala. These analyses also indicate that the dynamics involved are complicated. One thing that is certain, however, is that climate change is exacerbating many of the existing social, economic, and political challenges that the country faces.


While declining, Guatemala’s rate of population growth remains one of the highest in the region, and many Guatemalans are pessimistic that they will be able to develop prosperous lives for themselves domestically. Although Guatemala’s GDP grew by 5.9 percent in 2021 (following a decline in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the nation’s economic situation remains poor, with 65 percent of respondents in a 2018 poll perceiving that economic conditions had recently worsened.


Outmigration is often seen as the only route for a better life. Yet environmental challenges such as drought can increase the risk of individuals leaving vulnerable places like the Western Highlands. While some migrants find better opportunities domestically in places like Guatemala City, internal migration often does not yield significantly improved livelihoods, and leads people to migrate internationally. Moreover, there is often a cascading effect created by these choices. One instance of outmigration can spur additional instances. For instance, if migrants are deported from the United States, they may make additional attempts to return in order to repay the debt taken on to make the initial journey—especially because opportunities to acquire the necessary funds to migrate abroad do not exist in Guatemala. This creates a vicious cycle that drives families even deeper into poverty and pushes migrants to make more dangerous crossings.


Despite the efforts of many well-intended groups to create sustainable and dignified futures for people in Guatemala, many migrants continue to regularly make their way from Guatemala to the United States. These journeys are often dangerous, particularly for women and girls who are at high risk of sexual violence. Increasing numbers of irregular migrants appearing at the US-Mexico border has created a significant political challenge, resulting in policies and rhetoric intended to slow migrant flows.


For instance, in its most recent strategic plan for Guatemala, USAID proposed a series of Development Objectives that center on actions that seek to deter irregular migration. While this strategy may reflect political pressures in the United States, it fails to recognize that migration will continue to be an important livelihood strategy for many in Guatemala who are not experiencing improvements in their living standards. These migrants perceive that governments, donors, and NGOs are collectively unable to offer the opportunities needed for a better life.


Partnership and Improved Practices Can Pave the Way

Because of the inherent complexity of the problems facing women and girls in the Western Highlands, a systemic approach that incorporates the different causes of vulnerability is needed to address it. Such an approach is promoted by the Population Council through the Population, Environmental Risks, and the Climate Crisis (PERCC) Initiative, which seeks to influence and shape evidence-based policies that adopt a gender lens to pursue justice in the face of climate and environmental change.


By strengthening support for civil society, community-led initiatives can help increase access to sustainable livelihoods. For instance, indigenous women are playing a key role in building climate resilient futures for themselves and their communities through the revival of traditional practices such as seed exchange.


Additionally, greater efforts are needed to meet the needs of adolescents—especially adolescent girls—who are at a pivotal age. The Population Council’s Abriendo Oportunidades program in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico provides safe spaces that help girls develop leadership and other practical skills, provide tutoring, and share information on reproductive health. While this program has led to significant positive results, including increased educational attainment and lower levels of unintended pregnancies, such efforts are relatively small-scale compared to what will be required to provide hope and opportunity to all women and girls across Guatemala.


In the short run, the reality is that these dynamics will persist, and that migration will continue to be utilized as a livelihood strategy by many. Developing approaches to make migration safer, particularly for women and girls, is both humane and essential in order to foster more sustainable, long-term strategies for resilience. Remittance flows can be a crucial resource for those remaining in the Western Highlands to adapt to changing conditions.


The Invisible Threads report shows that more multidisciplinary research exploring these dynamics as an interconnected system is needed to provide additional insights for policymakers, donors, local communities, and other stakeholders. Such work should include scenario planning to think about how best to respond to climate pressures from droughts and extreme storm events.


Additionally, stakeholders must create substantive partnerships with indigenous communities and integrate their knowledge into policy and programmatic design. Domestic and international stakeholders who have been resistant to changing longstanding practices and stances must be receptive to using these new insights to change policy and foster more sustainable livelihood outcomes for women and girls. The wicked problem of climate change and livelihood sustainability in Guatemala will only be fixed with a greater willingness to experiment, change, and compromise.


Jessie Pinchoff is an associate at the Population Council, where she serves as co-lead of the Council’s Population, Environmental Risks, and the Climate Crisis (PERCC) initiative. Angel del Valle is the country representative of the Population Council’s Guatemala office and senior research officer Sources: Al Jazeera; Atlantic Council; The Borgen Project; Brookings; Center for Financial Inclusion; Climatic Change; The Dialogue; FIU Digital Commons; Food Security; Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology; Journal on Migration and Human Security; LAPOP; MSPAS, Guatemala; ND-GAIN; New York Times; Politically Speaking; Population Council; Population Institute; ReVista; Transparency International; USAID; World Bank



This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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