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With an area of 42,085 miles (109,000 square kilometers), Guatemala is largest country in Central America. It is bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The climate and topography range from the hot and humid tropical lowlands of the northern Peten region and the narrow southern coast to the cooler mountainous regions of the west. With the largest tropical rain forest in Central America, Guatemala also has a diversity of flora and fauna increasingly being threatened by deforestation and pollution.
Guatemala lies in the heart of classic Mayan civilization, which flourished from about 800 B.C.E. to 900 C.E., with the rise and eventual collapse of great cities like Tikal. Following the Spanish conquest in 1524, the colonial government ceded vast tracts of land for agricultural production with forced indigenous labor. After Guatemala gained independence in 1821, a series of governments expanded to new cash crops like coffee and bananas, creating wealth for a rising elite class. Nevertheless, the coercive agricultural export model heightened economic inequality and repression was utilized to quell growing social unrest. An increasingly volatile political climate after 1954 led to 36 years of civil war, which ended with the signing of a peace accord in 1996.
Today, 40 percent of Guatemala’s 12 million people live in urban areas, including the capital, Guatemala City. The official census shows that 60 percent of the population is of mestizo (mixed) descent with the other 40 percent comprising indigenous, largely Mayan groups. Other estimates assert the indigenous population is much larger. Fifty percent of the active adult population is involved in agricultural production including sugarcane, corn, bananas, coffee, and livestock.
Dropping prices for coffee, the country’s largest export crop, have led to intensification of production and efforts to grow for organic and fair trade markets. Corn, in particular, has strong economic, social, and cultural importance for subsistence use. Guatemala City is the industrial center, manufacturing textiles, furniture, and chemicals. Petroleum and mining are also important although the biggest industry has quickly become tourism.
Redemocratization has signaled a number of changes. It opened avenues for social mobilization around a broad set of socioeconomic and environmental issues, and political stability led to renewed efforts in the promotion of economic growth through major infrastructure projects like Plan Puebla Panama. Although created under the guise of sustainable development, individual projects have stirred controversy. These include a series of hydroelectric dams proposed for the Usumacinta River, on the northwestern border of Guatemala with Mexico, which could displace 50,000 people as well as flood Mayan archaeological sites and the most biologically diverse areas of the country. The euphoria of the peace accords a decade earlier has subsided with the realization of the difficult tasks ahead. Rain forests in the Peten are being destroyed at some of the highest rates in the world for ranching and petroleum exploration. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was signed in March 2005, amidst intense street protest over a host of environmental and socioeconomic concerns, among these the future of subsistence agricultural production. Social mobilization continues to mount despite violence against political activism reaching an alarming rate.
- Arturo Arias, in Carol Smith, e, Guatemalan Indians and the State: 1540-1988 (Latin American Studies Association, 1990);
- James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (Verso, 1988);
- Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process (Oxford University Press, 2000).