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The Republic of Guatemala is located at the Northern end of the Central American isthmus, occupying a total land area of 108,889 km². It is bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Honduras and El Salvador to the Southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the South.

Two-thirds of the country are mountainous and dominated by a string of volcanic ranges that run west to east, and form vast plateaus, the Guatemalan highlands, on the northeast. Guatemala has a rugged topography with elevations ranging from sea level to 4,220 m above sea level.

Climate varies widely according to the complex topography. Average annual temperature is 25–30°C in the coast, about 20 ºC in the central highlands, and about 15°C in the higher mountains. The rainy season lasts from May to October in the inland areas and from May to December along the coast, with a dry spell during July and part of August; the dry season runs from either November or January to April. Annual rainfall ranges between 1,000 and 1,200 mm in most of the country, but the Atlantic coast receives about 4,000 mm. The El Niño phenomenon causes droughts in the eastern part of Guatemala, while La Niña events bring significant increases in rainfall. Eight climatically distinct regions can be distinguished: (a) northern region, (b) Northern Traversal Strip, (c) Caribbean region, (d) Western region, (e) Central plateau, (f) Eastern Valleys region, (g) Boca Costa, and (h) Pacific slope region.

The 28 rivers draining into the Pacific basin are short and shallow; the 16 rivers draining into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico drainage basins are longer and deeper. Major rivers include the PolochicDulce, Motagua, Sarstún (which forms the boundary with Belize), and the Usumacinta (which forms the boundary between Petén and Chiapas, Mexico) rivers. Major water bodies include the Petén Itzá, Izabal, Atitlán, Amatitlán, Ayarza, and Güija lakes.

Guatemala is a representative democracy administratively divided into 22 departments which are, in turn, subdivided into 340 municipalities. The capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción (known as Guatemala City), the largest city in Central America [1], [2], [3].

Important National Context

With an estimated total population of 16.346 million inhabitants (48.5% men, 51.5% women) and 150 inhabitants per square kilometre (as of 2018), Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. Guatemala’s population has more than doubled since the end of the civil war in 1996; it is still growing rapidly but at a declining rate (1.8% annual growth rate for the 2002–2018 period) and is projected to reach over 22.7 million inhabitants by 2050. Half of the population is 26.5 yr or younger (as of 2018). The population includes mainly ladino (mixed indigenous and European heritage, 56% of the 2018 population) and Mayan people (42%), in addition to Xinka people, afro descendants, Garifuna (mixed African and Caribbean heritage) people, and foreigners. The main language is Spanish, but many people, particularly in rural areas, speak Mayan or other indigenous languages [4], [5].

The spatial distribution of the population is highly uneven; all major cities are located in the highlands and Pacific coast regions, whereas the northern region is sparsely populated. In 2018 (date of the latest population census), the Department of Guatemala had a population of over 3 million people (18% of the total population), followed by other departments that have recently grown rapidly such as Alta Verapaz (7.4% of the total population), Huehuetenango (7.2%), and San Marcos (6.3%).

Guatemala has been experiencing a rapid urbanization process since the 1950s as a result of rural-to-urban migration in addition to the cities’ own growth. In 2018, 53.8% of the population lived in urban zones and 46.2% in rural areas, compared to the corresponding figures in 2002, 46.1% and 53.9% [4], [5].

With an annual average GDP of $70 billion and average growth rate of 3.4% over the 2015–2019 period, the Guatemalan economy is the largest in Central America. Three sectors currently comprise the majority of Guatemala’s economic activity: services, industry, and agriculture. Since the 1996 peace accords that ended the civil war, tourism has become an increasing source of revenue for Guatemala thanks to new foreign investments. Thus, the services sector (mainly tourism) accounted for 62.6% of 2019 GDP. The industrial sector (including manufacturing of textiles, pharmaceuticals, tires, clothing, and construction) contributed 21.8%, and the agriculture sector (including crops, livestock ranching, forestry, and fishing) accounted for 9.4%. Personal remittances from the Guatemalan diaspora (mainly in the USA) totalled over $10.5 billion in 2019, or approximately 13.8% of GDP.

With a Gross National Income per capita of $4,490 (as of 2020), Guatemala is regarded as an upper-middle income country. Nevertheless, it is also one of the poorest countries in the LAC region; it ranked 127 out of 189 countries worldwide and the fourth lowest in the LAC region (only above Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti) in the UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Index (0.663). Wealth is extremely unequally distributed, with the richest 10% of the population holding 38% of the national income, against the 4.5% held by the poorest 20% (as of 2014). The Gini coefficient was 48.3 in 2014, among the twenty most unequal countries in the world. Despite the steady growth of the overall economy, general poverty increased from 51% to 59.2%, and extreme poverty from 15.2% to 23.4%, between 2006 and 2014 countrywide, with marked differences between the Metropolitan region (where general/extreme poverty were 32%/0.6% in 2014) and rural areas such as the predominantly indigenous Northwestern region (where general/extreme poverty were 78%/39% in 2014). This unequal access to economic opportunities might be one of the factors that push Guatemalans to migrate (illegally) to the USA.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in March 2020; in addition to the public health crisis, it has also had profound socioeconomic impacts including massive job losses due to confinement measures, food insecurity, and declines in access to quality education and health. These impacts were further exacerbated by the extensive damages (heavy rains, floods, landslides, damage to infrastructure, crops, and households, and human losses) caused by tropical storms Amanda and Cristobal (in the first half of 2020) and hurricanes Eta and Iota (in November 2020). Despite the unprecedented government’s response and the sustained inflow of remittances, some 140,847 jobs are estimated to have been lost, GDP contracted by 1.5%, and about 340,000 people are estimated to have fallen into poverty in 2020 [4], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11].

Guatemala currently has fairly decent telecommunication systems and internet services. In 2005, 78.5% of the population had access to electricity (94% vs. 64.8% in urban vs. rural areas), fixed telephone services had a coverage of only 9.5 subscriptions per 100 people, the penetration of cellular phone services was 34.4 subscriptions per 100 people, and only 5.7% of the population were using the internet. Access to electricity increased to 95.7% (95.2% vs. 74.0% in urban vs. rural areas), fixed telephone services increased to 11.2 subscriptions per 100 people, the penetration of cellular phone services increased to 118.7 subscriptions per every 100 people, and 44.4% of the population were using the internet by 2019.

The country had relied heavily on fossil fuels (coal and oil) for power generation, but in recent years it has made it a priority of generating more of its electricity needs from renewable sources. About 59% of the electricity generated in 2003 came from fossil fuels and 41% from renewable sources (mainly hydroelectricity). Renewable power generation capacity increased from 55.3% in 2013 to 68.8% in 2019, thanks to the installation of new plants. Hydroelectric plants increased from 22 medium- and large-sized plants in 2010 to 97 variously sized (including mini-hydro) plants in 2019. Biomass-based plants increased from nine in 2010 to 23 in 2019. Three wind, eight solar, and three biogas plants were installed during the 2010-2019 period [2], [7].

Guatemala’s geographic location makes it one of the countries of the world most directly and unavoidably exposed to multiple natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanic activity, hurricanes, floods, landslides, and droughts.

Being located between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala is a frequent target for tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch caused over 380 deaths, affected over 105,700 people, and left material damages estimated at US$748 million in 1998; Hurricane Stan killed more than 1,500 people and left over 475,000 people affected and material damages estimated at US$988 million in 2005. The most recent instances include tropical storm Amanda which hit the country in May 2020 causing intense, prolonged rains that led to floods, land- and mudslides, and river surges across several departments of the country affecting over 300,000 people. Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit the country in November 2020 causing extensive floods and mudslides that left over 160 people killed or missing and destroyed infrastructure, crops, and households particularly in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Izabal, Quiché, Huehuetenango, Petén, Zacapa, and Chiquimula, some of which are predominantly inhabited by poor Mayan communities.

The area known as the Corredor Seco (dry corridor) encompasses parts of seven departments in central Guatemala which, by being located on the leeward side of the Chama and Las Minas mountain ranges, are affected by drought conditions caused by the rain shadow effect of those mountains. Such conditions are exacerbated by El Niño events, which periodically bring drier, hotter conditions that can lead to protracted droughts. The El Niño event of 2009-2010 caused the worst drought in the LAC region in 30 years causing enormous agricultural losses that affected some 2.5 million Guatemalans. The Corredor Seco is also the country’s region where poverty and food insecurity are the worst.

Guatemala's densely populated highlands lie along the Motagua Fault (part of the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates), which puts them under pending seismic risk. Five 7/8 magnitude earthquakes hit Guatemala between 1999 and 2017, some of which affected hundreds of thousands of people and left material damages amounting to hundreds of millions.

On top of that, the Middle America Trench, a major subduction zone off the Pacific coast where the Cocos Plate is sinking beneath the Caribbean Plate, puts Guatemala under volcanic activity risk. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, four of which are active (PacayaSantiaguitoFuego, and Tacaná). The Volcán de Fuego eruption of June 2018 included several volcanic explosions, pyroclastic flows, and clouds of volcanic ash that caused 461 deaths, 27 injured people, and over 1,700,000 people affected; it has been the deadliest eruption in Guatemala since 1929.

Guatemala was the 16th country of the world worst affected by climate-related natural hazards during the 2000–2019 period  [2], [3], [9], [10], [12], [13].

After the UN-mediated peace accord put an end to the 1960–1996 civil war, the country has achieved both economic growth and successful democratic elections. Nevertheless, significant suspicion and distrust between indigenous communities and the government remain, as many of the components of the peace agreements were never fully implemented. Guatemala went through a serious political crisis in 2015 with the ouster and arrest of the President and Vice President on corruption charges. The case was filed by the UN-supported International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala that had been set up to investigate high-level corruption. This was the first time in Guatemala’s recent history that a firmly entrenched culture of impunity and abuse of power by both the government and private sector was effectively challenged [14].

Environmental Governance

Guatemala’s environmental policy and regulatory framework includes, first, the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala. The national Constitution states the government’s obligation to adopt measures for the effective conservation, development, and use of natural resources; sets major guidelines governing actions related to the country's environmental issues; states that forest conservation and reforestation are matters of national urgency and social interest; that all waters are public property, inalienable and imprescriptible; and that the use of water for agricultural, livestock ranching, tourism, or any other purpose that contributes to the national economy, would be for the service of the community and not for any private person. No specific national environmental policy is in place.

The environmental regulatory framework stems from the Constitution and includes, among its most important instruments, the 1986 Law for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment, the 2016 Regulation for Environmental Assessment, Control, and Monitoring, the 2013 Framework Law that Regulates the Reduction of Vulnerability,  Mandatory Adaptation to the Effects of Climate Change and Mitigation of Greenhouse Gases, the 1989 Law on Protected Areas, the 1996 Forestry Law; and others.

The government agencies mainly responsible for managing the country’s environment and natural resources include: the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, for its acronym in Spanish), which is responsible for enforcing regulations for the conservation, protection, sustainability, and improvement of the country’s environment and natural resources; guaranteeing the human right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment; and for preventing environmental pollution, reducing environmental deterioration, and the loss of natural heritage. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food (MAGA) is responsible for matters governing agricultural, livestock, and hydrobiological production, as well as those aimed at improving the nutritional condition of the population, agricultural health, and national productive development. The National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) is responsible for implementing policies and strategies for the conservation, protection, and improvement of the nation's natural heritage through the Guatemalan System of Protected Areas (SIGAP). The National Forestry Institute (INAB) was created to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, regulate the advancement of the agricultural frontier, promote reforestation of formerly forested areas, provide forest products, increase forest productivity by implementing sustainable management, encourage the use of systems and equipment that add value to forest products, conserve the country's forest ecosystems, and improve the livelihoods of communities by increasing the provision of forest’s goods and services.

In addition to the domestic policy and regulatory framework, Guatemala is party to several multilateral environmental agreements, including those that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit, the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, among others.

National context alignement with the EU Green Deal

Most of the priorities identified, and the corresponding goals set, by Guatemala’s National Development Plan Katún 2032 [15] in its Axis on Natural resources for today and the future are fully consistent with the aims of the EU’s focus on prioritizing climate action consistent with the Paris Accord, and with its Biodiversity and Forest Strategies. In particular: Climate change adaptation and mitigation; Conservation and sustainable use of forests and biodiversity; Land use planning for the sustainable use of natural resources; Sustainable management of marine coastal resources; and increasing the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix.

Key Environmental-Development Challenges

Guatemala faces two major, closely intertwined, environment-related development challenges: (i) Food insecurity and (ii) Climate change impacts on vulnerability to natural hazards and food insecurity [2], [3], [10], [16], [17].


Food insecurity

Guatemala is one of the most food-insecure countries in the LAC region. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)’s 2018 analysis [16] of chronic food insecurity (CFI, that is, food insecurity that persists over time, mainly due to structural causes) in Guatemala, about 76% of the population experience some level of CFI. About 22% of the population face moderate CFI and another 16% experience severe CFI. This structural food insecurity is mainly driven by deficiencies in the implementation of social assistance policies, lack of access to credit by small-holding farmers, high exposure to recurring natural hazards (droughts in the Corredor Seco, agricultural pests and diseases, floods), poverty and poor agricultural production, and lack of access to agricultural land and modern farming methods by small-holding farmers. This is often further limited by factors such as seasonal price increases of basic staples (beans and maize), and extreme poverty.

Food insecurity is frequently exacerbated by weather conditions and natural disasters, which trigger periods of acute food insecurity (AFI, that is, food insecurity occurring at a specific point in time and of a severity that threatens lives or livelihoods, or both, regardless of the causes, context, or duration). For instance, vulnerable people (e.g., subsistence farming households, small informal traders, and agricultural day labourers) that had suffered income losses due to the damages caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020 and that were affected by constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic were forced to use crisis and emergency coping strategies (e.g., selling assets and using savings) to meet food needs; some 3,450,000 people in 16 departments were estimated to face crisis levels of AFI through August 2021 [17].  


Climate change

The impending changes in temperature, precipitation, and other climatic variables will increase Guatemala’s exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events (tropical storms and hurricanes, floods, and droughts) and, thus, the incidence and magnitude of natural disasters, which will also exacerbate chronic and acute food insecurity.

For instance, the projected increase in temperature across the country, and precipitation decrease in the Motagua Valley in the east and the central plains, will increase evaporation and water scarcity, which will hinder crop productivity and exacerbate chronic food insecurity.

The projected increase in precipitation near the Pacific coast and in the Western and Central Plains, together with the projected increase in tropical cyclones and extreme weather events brought on by the El Niño (droughts) and La Niña (intense rains) events would affect areas already prone to flooding and landslides — thus increasing the incidence and impact of natural disasters — and threaten agricultural production, human settlements, coastal fisheries, and infrastructure — thus triggering periods of acute food insecurity.

In sum, climate changes are very likely to exacerbate Guatemala’s major vulnerabilities.